Updated: Feb 11
Walking into Just Mercy, I had a certain expectation of how the film would play out. An innocent man unjustly accused by an inherently flawed criminal justice system, and the hotshot ivy league lawyer who vows to do everything in his power to save him. Any fairly experienced moviegoer would recognize the beats of this common courtroom drama, but that’s okay. Although the film is fairly formulaic, it is jam packed with acting so good, I’m baffled none of the cast were nominated for an Oscar.
Ultimately, this film still surprised me. Outside of the run of the mill (but still very well done) courtroom theatrics, there was a character archetype that threw me for a loop. And that was Rob Morgan’s portrayal of real life death row inmate, Herbert Richardson.
In Just Mercy, attorney Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) is our protagonist, taking on several death row cases in Alabama. While the film mainly revolves around Walter McMillian’s case (played by Jamie Foxx), the film also sheds light on several other death row cases that Stevenson took on. Most of these cases are aberrations of the criminal justice system, products of inherent racism that still runs rampant in the Jim Crow South. But, there’s one case that isn’t presented with those as a ticket to innocence and redemption.
Herbert Richardson is responsible for the death of an 11 year old girl. He admits it, Stevenson recognizes it, and it is clear that us as an audience are supposed to know this as well. And yet, we still don’t want him to die. As his execution inevitably draws closer and closer, your heart sinks, rueing in the inevitability of his death.
On the day of his execution, Herb tells Stevenson,“More people have asked if I needed anything today, than have asked me in my entire life.”
And with this line it becomes clear. Herb is no murderer. He is a victim of a society that has left him behind.
My connection to this character motivated me to do my own research after the film concluded. Not only was everything the film presented accurate, but there were many details about Herbert that were deserving of recognition. His mother died when he was 3, and with no consistent guardians in his life, he began experimenting with drugs at age 7. After being drafted and serving in Vietnam, he was the only survivor of an ambush to his platoon, leaving him brain damaged and with unexplained “crying fits.” After an honorable discharge from service, Herbert was addicted to drugs, suffering from severe PTSD, and had lasting brain damage from the War. All of these things deserved immediate medical and emotional support. The closest thing he had to that was a failing, dysfunctional relationship with a fellow drug addict, who was planning on leaving him. In an ill-fated and delusional attempt to win her back, Herb planted a pipe bomb on her porch, with the plan to disarm it; in essence, “saving” her. His partner’s niece, an 11 year old, picked it up, detonating the pipe bomb and killing her.
He was arrested and his assigned public defender recommended the death penalty. At his trial, his veteran status, PTSD, or brain damage were never disclosed. He was the first Vietnam war veteran to be executed on death row.
Even though he did it, I didn’t want him to die. He was directly responsible for the death of an 11 year old girl, yet the film shows us that his life had value, and he didn’t deserve execution. Regardless of his biggest mistake, he is more than just the crime. As explained on the Equal Justice Initiative’s website, “The story of his life demonstrates that people who are guilty of crimes are more than the worst thing they have ever done and do not deserve to be executed.”
Herbert Richardson posing next to the death chamber shortly before his execution.
But, this film goes deeper than this straightforward political message. These conclusions are a given. The closing image is of Stevenson triumphantly explaining to Congress why the Death Penalty is antithetical to the American values of justice and mercy. And, of course, Herb and Walter are perfect examples of why the death penalty is unacceptable, especially with its historically wide margin of error. But the opening image is just as important.
The film opens before Walter is ever arrested, working timber out in the southern wilderness. As a trunk tumbles to the forest floor, Walter looks up and sees the wind blowing through the gap in the tops of the trees. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and basks in the feeling. He is free.
The night before Herb’s execution, Herb is overwhelmed by his past mistakes. But McMillan instructs Herb to close his eyes, take deep breaths, and escape into his own mind to try to find peace. “Think of the wind blowing through the trees,” he calmly says to Herb, as he does the same thing. And together, for a moment, they both escape their cages, and are able to visit that opening image, to the wind blowing through the trees.
As he shuffles to the electric chair the next day, hopeless that his stay of execution has been rejected, Herb begins his deep breathing exercises to help him escape his living nightmare. But then, we hear all of the inmates from death row above, screaming and clanking their pots, just loud enough for Herb to hear through the air vents. “We are with you, Herb! We are all with you!” yells McMillian, along with the rest of the inmates. And as Herb delivers his last words, the exuberant clanking and singing and yelling of all of his friends from above, growing louder and louder, Herb, against all odds and his predestined life, dies with a smile on his face.
No matter how much someone is physically imprisoned, the mind always has a way to escape. No matter how much an unjust system of oppression bears down the innocent and the sick, freedom can always be found from within. Beneath the necessary agenda Just Mercy promotes, at its core, this film’s message shows the strength of the human spirit, even in the most dire of circumstances.
After being moved by Herb’s strength leading towards his death, I was reminded of the William Ernst Henley poem Invictus, which coincidentally also empowered Nelson Mandela during his unjust imprisonment. The last stanza serves as inspiration for those who may be physically trapped, but who are still free.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul
This film taught me I can always close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and think of the wind blowing through the tops of the trees, just like Herb, and just like Walter. No matter how dark it is before dawn, no matter how caged I may be, I am always free. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.