In this lesson, the film itself is the central text as students focus on how themes, characters, and other influences impact Walter McMillian’s case. Before each class period, it will be important to set the tone of a psychologically safe space for students to discuss openly how white supremacy, racism and the criminalization of poverty serve as sources of injustice. Established classroom norms, preferably norms that students create themselves, will allow for authentic and honest conversations.
Just Mercy is not only a film centered around themes of empathy, equity, hope, and resilience. It is a story that uplifts marginalized voices who are typically unheard, unacknowledged, or deemed undeserving of mercy in the criminal justice system. The story follows Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson’s move to Alabama where he recognizes an urgent need to provide free legal assistance to minorities who have been unfairly sentenced. Central to the film is the formation of the strong connective relationships between Stevenson and the condemned men he is helping. He builds a particularly powerful relationship with Walter McMillian, a Black man wrongfully sentenced to death, who helps him navigate the challenges of confronting such a strong structure of power and intimidation. Through these relationships, viewers gain insight into the humanity of the incarcerated individuals and the motivating factors for Bryan’s resilience in the face of devastating barriers.