Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I never know whether to read the book before seeing the movie or vice-versa.

Luckily enough, I’ve studied enough literature and enough films to understand the differences between these two expressive languages. Different story-telling techniques make a great book as opposed to those that make a great film, and a film can err just as readily by being too faithful to the book it’s adapting as it can by disregarding too much of its source material. (Exhibit A: Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)

That perspective helps me regardless of which direction I travel (book-to-movie or movie-to-book) with a particular text.

A stack of leather-bound books sitting next to a small stack of film canisters.

Still there are times when I make a very decided choice of what direction I want to travel. It’s not always the same direction, ‘cos I’m complicated that way. Sometimes I make a very strong “movie first” choice, and sometimes I go all-in for “book first.”

With Just Mercy it was a strong “book first” directionality.

The book’s been on my radar for quite a while, and I remember hearing about the movie when it came out in 2019. Then it all came back more strongly onto my radar last spring, when the film was made available for free in the early wave of last summer’s #BlackLivesMatter protests.* When a co-worker shared this tidbit of news on our social email chain, there were several other colleagues who shared how the movie was totally good, but paled in comparison to the book.

So I moved Stevenson’s book closer to the top of my reading list.

(Given this all, I will acknowledge the delicious irony insofar as my library copy of the book from Libby has the movie tie-in cover photography.)

An iPad displaying the movie tie-in edition of the eBook for Just Mercy. Superimposed over a photo of Michael B. Jordan (the actor who plays Stevenson) is the following text:
#1 New York Times Bestseller
Now a Major Motion Picture
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson’s memoir is subtitled, “A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which mostly encapsulates the story that serves as a primary narrative thread throughout the book: Stevenson’s effort to win a new trial and, ultimately, an acquittal for Walter McMillan, who was imprisoned for 6 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

McMillan’s story is compelling one, and it serves as a powerful lens through which many aspects of the racial injustices built into the U.S. justice system can be readily exposed—from unconscious bias, on up to active corruption and cruelty. But there are angles of injustice that cannot be reflected through the lens of McMillan’s experience, and the extra narrative acreage that a book has room for allows Stevenson to weave other stories through his chapters, stories that shine light on the multiple injustices in prosecution and sentencing for Black women and children. The book’s acreage also allows Stevenson the room to show us McMillan’s incredible grace and courage in rebuilding his life after prison, as well as the ways that such traumatic mistreatment can never be 100% got over.

I also have a tremendous appreciation for the ways that Stevenson actively pushes against any savior mythology around his persona. He is unsparing in his honestly about errors and miscalculations he makes over the course of his career, about those real human moments of fallibility, dark emotions, and even small cruelties of his own. This all comes to a beautiful, heart-reading culmination in the penultimate chapter:

For the first time, I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. [. . .] In their broken state, they we’re judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice. [. . .]

It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something. [. . .] I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice.

I do what I do because I’m broken, too.

Stevenson shows the courageous vulnerability to make clear that the “redemption” referred to in his book’s subtitle is not just McMillan’s redemption being set free from Holman State Prison, and not even just redemption for all the clients who have experienced a lessening of injustice because of the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative Stevenson founded and still leads. This redemption is Stevenson’s own, and it is yours and mine and all our (in)justice system’s.

I’m sure I’ll watch the movie some day. (Especially since I DVR’ed it off HBO within the last month or so.) Still, the depth of the discussion makes me very glad that I read this book. And that I read it first.

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* And yet, more Netflix viewers chose to watch The Help during this window of time. Sigh.

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