Synopsis – World-renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson works to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner.
My Take – It is a poignant feeling when you read about how American lawyer and social justice activist Bryan A. Stevenson‘s 2014 best-selling memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, has become a touchstone of criminal justice writing to help change the conversation around capital punishment in America.
While botched investigations and manipulated evidence are not exactly a thing of the past, as black men, along with other races, continue to endure abuse at the hands of law enforcement through harassment, coercion and brutality, Bryan Stevenson’s memoir aimed to educate the world on hot-button issues surrounding race and justice, as well as the always-emotive topic of capital punishment and what exactly the electric chair does.
With so much context in hand, with this film adaption, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) provides a sincere and determined look into the American justice system told in the form of a gripping sense of drama. Though courtroom dramas are often predictable, here, the film provides enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.
While the film may lack the same level of compassion present in If Beale Street Could Talk, or the same level of outrage When They See Us, it excellently manages to simply fit the pieces together to reveal an obvious truth about the miscarriage of justice. Add to that a set of nuanced performances from its cast, and here we have a solid legal drama.
Set in 1989, the story follows Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard graduate lawyer, who moves to Alabama to set up a legal representation with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a young mother who shares his sense of moral responsibility, and fight for those who cannot afford legal representation, especially death row inmates.
Meeting a group of prisoners, predominantly African-American, many apparently innocent of their crimes and all in dire need of proper legal assistance, Bryan becomes especially involved with attempting to reopen the case surrounding Walter McMillan a.k.a. ‘Johnny D’ (Jamie Foxx), who’s also on Death Row for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, a white teenage girl. And after some in-depth research, Bryan is convinced that the evidence against Walter is not strong enough, and decides to appeal to Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), the new district attorney.
While the decision puts Bryan in several extreme situations like bomb threats and police harassment, he remains determined to fight for Walter’s freedom. Here, director Cretton doesn’t dramatize the actual murder, keeping the film from drifting too far into lurid true-crime territory. He focuses instead on Stevenson’s efforts to win the trust of McMillian’s family, challenge the unsympathetic district attorney, convince a key witness known as Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) to recant his shaky testimony, and attempt to aid other men on death row at the same time.
In a deeply affecting subplot, the film also follows Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam War veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who never got the emotional support he needed on his return home from war, whose actions resulted in the death of an innocent. Even though he is guilty of his crime, he is shown as a thinking, feeling person who must live with the knowledge that the electric chair awaits him.
It makes his execution scene quite horrifying, as images of Richardson on the electric chair are inter cut with Stevenson’s face, as the former takes his last breath before being electrocuted to death.
With a strong sense of justice emanating throughout the story, the film succeeds both as an entertaining legal drama and as a sad commentary on the poor state of America’s penal system, and director Cretton pays enough attention to the tough details of McMillian’s journey, and to the harsh realities of capital punishment and racism it prompts, to sell the film’s unflagging earnestness.
What this film really does well is bring the straightforward politics of a Mockingbird-esque crusading legal drama into our modern dialogue around mass incarceration and the death penalty. And even the happy ending leaves us with the unsettling knowledge that so many people, primarily African-Americans, have been wrongfully placed on death row for either menial crimes or even something that cannot be helped like their physical appearance.
Even with all this weighted context, the fact that the film works is a pleasant surprise. Not only does the drama grant respect and dignity to the key figures of the original case, but director Cretton also touches on larger issues about the morality of the death penalty at large. The delayed exoneration of an innocent black man is a relatively straightforward narrative, one that tracks easily with audience sympathies.
While many films make the mistake of turning a film about what it is to be black (at any point) in America’s history and turn it into a white savior, feel-good film. In layman’s terms, Hollywood is continuously guilty of making “not all white people” style films, and the film does not make that mistake; it does a beautiful job of keeping a white ally simply that, an ally.
That’s not to say that everything was perfect, though. While it is true that racism is still considered a prevalent issue in the southern US states, I feel that the film does exaggerate some of the white people’s characteristics. It just seems that over 95% of the white characters depicted in the film are racist against black people for no other reason other than their skin color, which comes across as a highly broad generalization and feels as though they are trying to guilt trip all white people who may be watching. Also I would have preferred to see more of Bryan Stevenson’s backstory and his motivations to suddenly pack and head to Alabama.
As we have come to expect from him, here, Michael B. Jordan delivered every moment of disbelief, outrage and heartbreak perfectly, in the form of his most mature, heartfelt performance to date as real-life lawyer Bryan Stevenson. While Brie Larson is relevant, able-bodied and present in a supportive role. The two share solid on-screen chemistry and it makes me hope to see the two of them acting off one another again in a future project.
But the true standout is Jamie Foxx, who once again proves his versatility as an actor, bringing a heartfelt backbone to several of the film’s most dramatic scenes. Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan also put in stand-out supporting performances. In other roles, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Rafe Spall, Minnie McMillian, Michael Harding and Eva Ansley are also good. On the whole, ‘Just Mercy’ is a powerful and emotionally down-to-earth legal drama led by astonishing performances.
Directed – Destin Daniel Cretton
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 137 minutes