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‘Just Mercy’ (review)

Produced by Gil Netter,
Asher Goldstein, Michael B. Jordan

Screenplay by Destin Daniel Cretton
and Andrew Lanham

Based on the book by Bryan Stevenson
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx,
Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson,
Rafe Spall, Brie Larson

 

After a long day working in the woods, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) drives home only to be stopped by a police officer.

Rolling down the window, he keeps his hands visible and gives polite cordial answers to the officer in order to prevent the situation from escalating.

Little does he know that it is already out of his control, as he has been setup to take the fall for the unsolved murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

Just Mercy follows the young and idealistic lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he works to overturn Johnny D’s death row sentence against all odds, shedding light on the depths of injustice in a small Alabama community.

Our first introduction to Stevenson is in a prison visiting room, where he shifts nervously while waiting for an inmate. He telegraphs naivete and earnestness, and makes fast friends as they explore their common background growing up in Black churches. The sobering reality of the shared language between him as a Harvard law student and this death row prisoner stays with Stevenson through school, and sees him returning to the South after graduation to set up an office for the Equal Justice Institute with spitfire Eva Ansley (a well-cast Brie Larson).

This brief glimpse is almost all we see of instances to shape his character. Stevenson is the hero of the film, and there is nary a flaw to explore or give depth to his character. Injustices are met with subdued intensity, disappointment with resignation. While these mechanisms make sense under the harassment of prison guards and the dismissive district attorney, we rarely see the cracks in the facade that allow for nuance and growth.

While Jordan does the most he can with an Atticus Finch caricature, Foxx is allowed to show a range that reminds us how criminally underused he has been in Hollywood. Johnny D is initially skeptical of Stevenson’s eagerness to file for another trial in light of the shoddy case against him. Does this well-educated child not see that this was not a case of facts, but of upholding a racist system that cared less for justice and more for the oppressive status quo?

As Johnny D starts to trust and believe, the journey from guarded to hopeful to anguish and more is played out with a modest amount of words but incredible weight in each sentence and glance. The film suffers from speechifying (a common issue with legal procedurals) which makes the power of Foxx’s quiet performance even more noticeable.

Some of the best acting comes from the prison scenes, like Tim Blake Nelson’s turn as the cunning perjurer Ralph Meyers, who starts to feel ill about his part in sending a man to his death. But the most emotionally raw performance is Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson, a PTSD-suffering Vietnam vet who killed a girl with a pipe bomb after receiving insufficient care for his mental illness. The days leading up to his execution are a whirlwind of emotion not just for him, but all the prisoners on the row as they see themselves in his angst. Those last hours before the chair are the scenes that will stay with moviegoers the longest, both for the superb acting by Morgan and the feeling of utter hopelessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable state-sanctioned cruelty.

Even though it follows a known formula for Southern civil rights legal dramas, the true life absurdity of the situation in Alabama lends itself to storytelling in a way that stays interesting in spite of knowing what is about to happen. It is impossible to not feel for Johnny D, to not empathize with Herbert, or to not cheer for Stevenson as he moves from hope in change to resolve in bringing it about no matter what.

The desire for justice is a universally appealing story, and Just Mercy eventually brings it home.

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