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Just Mercy
★★★★☆
First run Theater cinema

Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) brings lawyer, professor, and activist Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy (2014) to the screen as a moving and riveting legal procedural that sticks close to the facts while giving viewers the feel of an old-school, Hollywood studio social justice drama. The film follows an early, pivotal case in Stevenson’s career, in which the young lawyer (played with exceptional restraint by Michael B. Jordan) represents an Alabama man named Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx in a career-best performance) sentenced to death for murder after a sham trial. McMillian insists on his innocence but has lost all faith in a justice system that continuously fails to provide justice for people who look like him. And with good reason, as the evidence in the case against him is so egregiously disprovable it’s hard to see how he could ever have been convicted except for racism, classism, and abuse of power in the Alabama town where the murder took place.  

Cretton and his co-writer Andrew Lanham craft the kind of by-the-numbers docudrama screenplay that normally gives me hives—this is one of those movies where the Southern sheriff does the passive-aggressive equivalent of moustache-twirling and all the black folks are salt of the earth, God-fearing Christians. But the direction and acting are so subtle and the movie sticks so close to the unimpeachable truth of the case that rather than coming off as facile or shamelessly manipulative, the movie demonstrates why stereotypes like racist Southern sheriffs and scared, bewildered, or beaten-down African Americans ring so true.

Cretton and Lanham also make several key decisions that set the film apart from lesser movies that follow a similar formula. For example, the focus on McMillian’s fellow death row convicts: Anthony Ray Hinton, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton, Ingrid Goes West, Long Shot), and Herbert Richardson, played by Rob Morgan (Mudbound, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Netflix’s streaming series Stranger Things). Morgan, as an ageing Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD and guilty of setting a bomb that killed a woman, is as worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination as the glorious Foxx. In Richardson we witness a man trapped between paralyzing feelings of guilt and remorse for the accidental but unforgivable death he caused, and paralyzing terror of his own state-sponsored murder in the electric chair.  

Foxx, who’s acclaimed performances include Django UnchainedCollateral, and his Oscar-winning role as Ray Charles in Ray (2004), conveys real heartbreak in this understated role. In fact, one of the elements that make Just Mercy so fascinating is how powerful the acting is despite the severe performance restrictions the script and director place on the actors. Yes, there are lofty speeches underscored by the type of sentimental music that often drags this type of movie down to a cringe-worthy level, but everyone in the cast is tasked with playing intense, dramatic emotions that must be repressed in order for their characters to achieve their goals. At nearly each moment included in the picture, any display of emotion by the characters will only bring them more pain and suffering—be it the anger and humiliation Stevenson experiences when he’s stripped-searched as he first enters the Alabama prison to consult with a client, the despair McMillian feels as his hopes are alternately rekindled and snuffed out, or the oppression his family and community feel whenever the white establishment demonstrates their oppressive power. Many of the white characters are in a similar predicament, including Stevenson’s coworker and founder of Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson turning an underwritten role into a rich character), and Ralph Myers, the convicted felon who provided the foundational false testimony that formed the basis of the case against McMillian. The always-dependable Tim Blake Nelson plays Myers in another memorable supporting role. Even the men who are part of the white power establishment—the sheriff (Michael Harding), the new district attorney (Rafe Spall), and the many correction officers who work in the prison—can’t show their cards too clearly or it might betray their criminal intentions or the doubts they may harbor about their own despicable actions.

As the lead, Jordan is saddled with the most difficult role when it comes to these limitations. We only see Stevenson in certain contexts, so Jordan is only allowed to play a finite range of this real-life character’s many dimensions. Cretton gives us no scenes that illuminate Stevenson’s life outside of his work; nor are he or any of the principal black characters given a chance to express rage at a system that this movie so clearly demonstrates is insurmountably stacked against them. But while this limited scope keeps us at a slight distance from the protagonist’s core, it also keeps Just Mercy from falling into the worst clichés of the docudrama format. Cretton and Lanham do an excellent job of working in many of Bryan Stevenson’s observations about American history, poverty, the criminal justice system, and political morality in general. Just Mercy is a straightforward, compassionate, and heartbreaking depiction of the racist legacies, structures, and underlying themes that continue to plague American society, despite the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow. As Bryan Stevenson so eloquently states, the opposite of poverty is not wealth—it’s justice.  

Twitter Capsule:
Cretton brings lawyer/activist Bryan Stevenson’s powerful memoir to the screen as a beautifully acted legal procedural that sticks close to the facts while giving viewers the feel of an old-school, Hollywood studio social justice drama.

Directed by Destin Cretton
Produced by Gil Netter and Asher Goldstein

Screenplay by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
Based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

With: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, Rob Morgan, Claire Bronson, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Hayes Mercure, and Karan Kendrick

Cinematography: Brett Pawlak
Editing: Nat Sanders
Music: Joel P. West

Runtime: 137 min
Release Date: 10 January 2020
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color