JUST MERCY (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic content including some racial epithets, and some language)
Released: December 25, 2019 limited; wide January 10, 2020
Runtime: 136 minutes
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick, Rafe Spall

Even in the face of a Hollywood formula, truth prevails — as does the power it wields.

Just Mercy is the real-life story of Walter McMillian, an African-American in late 1980s Alabama who was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. No physical evidence tied McMillian to the brutal crime, yet he was sent to death row simply on the uncorroborated testimony of a career criminal he’d never met.

I repeat: this happened. Within the last thirty-plus years. In America.

It’s one of the most egregious injustices imaginable, an example of such extreme inequity that it drives home the reality of what’s broken in our judicial system as powerfully as any case study possibly could.

This dramatization — based on the memoir of lawyer Bryan A. Stevenson who spearheaded the appeal for McMillian — examines the systemic corruption that lead to the framing of an innocent man, one that involved pressuring a vulnerable prisoner to rig due process through a coerced lie, and all predicated on crass racism.

It’s the kind of court case (one of racial discrimination in the Deep South) that’s tailor made for an “important” Hollywood movie. Too often, unfortunately, Just Mercy feels like that to its detriment, despite noble intentions, unable to resist the red meat of sensationalized clichés. Thankfully, the heartfelt conviction of a strong ensemble saves it.

Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther, Creed) stars as Stevenson, the fresh-out-of-Harvard idealist who dares to confront institutionalized prejudice. Positioned as a righteous crusader, Jordan leavens that archetype with some humility and gravitas; the fact that he’s not a “white savior” is an added blessing.

Brie Larson provides respectable supporting work as a legal aide in Stevenson’s scrappy pro bono social justice law firm (that would grow to become the Equal Justice Initiative), and Jamie Foxx brings his formidable talent to bear as McMillian, but the routine approach limits their efforts to mostly stock versions of their respective roles.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton, however, is able to nurture nuance out of two key supporting performances from Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan. Nelson is the redneck jailbird patsy that the prosecutor leverages to frame McMillian, and Morgan is a fellow African-American death row inmate.

Nelson takes a white trash caricature and imbues him with conflicted humanity, paerticularly in the final act, and the subplot involving Morgan’s convict is the film’s most affecting. Morgan follows up his standout turn in Mudbound with another burdened, exceptional performance, one that makes a provocative anti-death penalty case even for those who are guilty of their crimes. How we treat them says as much about our own humanity (maybe more) as does the rank bigotry that McMillian suffered.

Indeed, this is where Just Mercy finds its strength, in painting a picture of death row and a system that shackles poor minorities with no resources. It’s the lone issue that has been met with universal bipartisanship in the Trump era, and Just Mercy makes a compelling case to continue the long, necessary fight of reform.

Cretton specializes in small, intimate moments, ones that feel spontaneous and raw. In them, the film’s ideas and themes truly resonate. Unfortunately, those moments quickly give way to bigger, broader, more conventional “issue movie” soapboxes, replete with caricatured (rather than insidious) racists, all writ large through wailing emotions played at full tilt.

The film sways between scenes of piercing, gut-wrenching truth to others of histrionic pandering, like the work of an incisive director (which Cretton is; his Short Term 12 is a must-see) that finds itself in tension with studio-mandated dictates.

Competently done, with genuine sincerity and moral weight, Just Mercy ultimately transcends the familiar, simplistic melodrama this telling often resorts to. It may be Oscar bait, but it’s worth taking.

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