Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice arrives to take away Mr. Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) in 1987 Alabama after an average day out and about in the woods. He’s been charged with the brutal murder of an 18-year-old Caucasian female. His sentence? Death, despite the extremely questionable testimonial from the man who claimed he saw McMillian commit the act. For years, lawyers cycle in and out of his life, claiming to be beacons of salvation until they either have taken enough money from his supportive family, or decide to bolt after being metaphorically beaten down by a crooked system.
Maybe the next lawyer is different. All Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is motivated by is justice. He’s a freshly graduated African-American law student from Harvard who can go find work anywhere his heart desires. His heart desires Alabama, where he feels his calling is in helping those who are dead men walking. The astute Stevenson, with assistance from operations assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), finds the faults in the flimsy conviction quickly, but that’s nowhere near enough to set McMillian free as the time continuously ticks down on his life.
Pining for a biographical double feature rooted around the injustices of the American justice system? Look no further than pairing the recent Brian Banks with Just Mercy, the latter based on the memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Stevenson. What it is saying regarding how faulty the legal system is isn’t an unknown idea, but the people portraying those within the story make Just Mercy really moving.
Destin Daniel Cretton burst onto the scene as a director in 2013, making the awesome indie in Short Term 12 (a movie that was special at the time and now can say it had budding A-listers in Larson, Lakeith Stanfield, and Rami Malek). Just Mercy isn’t a work driven by its director, and it’s hard to see accolades coming on that front for it. But there are arresting sequences that Cretton stages, such as a separate traffic stop and strip search directed at Stevenson that show that in Alabama, the accomplishments of a man simply do not matter if the skin color is darker. However, the best and most tragic one sees an inmate meet his end in an electric chair. The buildup to the scene, which sees fellow inmates making noise on the cell singing hymns while their friend is concurrently being executed in another room, isn’t meant to be subtle.
The screenplay, co-written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, seems to very much adhere to the facts, showing that with each hoop Stevenson and co. successfully jump through, there’s another one that pops up along with a landmine or two to impede progress. At a little over two hours, Just Mercy doesn’t drag, but the pacing is a wee bit wonky, especially near the end where the cathartic moment feels rushed considering it happens not long after the defense team of McMillan suffers another setback. At the very least, Just Mercy certainly makes the case that the death penalty isn’t always as black and white (pun unintended, simply fits perfectly here) as it may seem, especially with the jaw-dropping statistics revealed that the system gets it wrong to a sizable degree.
Any accolade noise Just Mercy makes over the next few months will be courtesy of cast efforts. A collection of supporting talent doesn’t get a lot of a screen time, but, without guys like Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., and Rob Morgan, the cruelty of the matter at hand wouldn’t feel as real. It’s no surprise that MBJ and Larson are good, even if their characters come off as slightly too one-sided in the heroic direction (Jordan) or barely there (Larson, pulling off a convincing Southern accent). If anything, Just Mercy may serve to be a reminder of the talent Foxx is. This is undoubtedly his strongest showcase in seven years since Django Unchained, a moving performance of a man who tries to detach himself from the finality of the situation but slowly finds measured hope and second, third, and fourth winds in the well-meaning Stevenson.
Spearheaded by strong lead work, Just Mercy delivers a sound and intriguing analysis of the validity of the death penalty. Does a just world exist? Maybe, maybe not, but a line said near the end by Stevenson could be the answer to that question. “We can’t change the world with only ideas in our mind, we need conviction in our hearts.”
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