Starring Michael B. Jordan Jamie Foxx Rob Morgan Tim Blake Nelson Rafe Spall. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
For the sake of transparency, Just Mercy is a film that deals with the issues of race and the US death penalty. The person reviewing this film is neither American nor black, and so does not understand the nuance of the US judicial system or the systematic racism inherent in the culture, and can only go based on the events as portrayed the film.
Just Mercy is the true story of Bryan Stevenson, an African American attorney who in 1986 took on the case of Walter McMillian, a man on death row for the murder of a white woman.
The film is Destin Daniel Cretton’s third directorial outing since 2013, after Short Term 12, and The Glass Castle. Cretton has now been scooped up to direct Marvel’s big action film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As a director he has had an eye for very human stories, be it the story of troubled youths and the supervisor they look up to, or the rocky childhood of Jeanette Walls.
In Just Mercy, Cretton has some pretty lofty ideas about what it means to have justice and what it means to tell the truth. In dealing with this court case of a man wrongly convicted of murder the age-old issue of talking in specifics to talk generally comes to the fore.
To his credit, Cretton – along with co-writer Andrew Lanham – manages to craft a compelling and slow-burning film, though at times it appears they have no intention of showing Stevenson as a human being.
At times, he comes across as a near-perfect being, solely focussed on fighting this one case of injustice as if it is his life’s work – and perhaps it is, but even so, the lack of human flaws appears to make him a cypher, a stand-in for what the US ideals of truth and freedom should be rather than a fully formed character.
That’s not as big an issue as you’d think when Michael B. Jordan is in the lead role. Jordan is both a Hollywood leading man and a socially conscious individual doing films of both big blockbusters and ones with emotional and social depth. Not unlike George Clooney, Jordan is able to produce and star in films that feel like they have true passion and just like with Fruitvale Station, Jordan as Stevenson is pouring his all into a true life figure that he clearly admires.
Despite this, the film almost entirely belongs to Jamie Foxx, who delivers a career-best performance as McMillan. As a wrongly convicted man, Foxx is able to quietly portray a man on the verge of an angry outburst, while knowing that the colour of his skin means he cannot truly say what he wants. Foxx is better here than he was in Ray, quietly burning with an intensity that calls to mind Sidney Poitier in his prime.
That cast around them are all solid with very sketched roles – Rafe Spall, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson and O’Shea Jackson Jr. all do their best to flesh out the story in it’s wider reaches as it deals with the mistreatment of veterans (especially veterans of colour), the abuse of power, racial injustice and flat out corruption. Though Brie Larson in her third collaboration with Cretton gets precious little to do except hand things to Jordan or stand there concerned.
The film is also not a courtroom drama, though some scenes do take place in one. Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, which is openly referenced in the opening of the film or A Time to Kill to which this film looks to owe a debt of sorts, this is more about the leg work that goes into forming a solid court case as opposed to any “you can’t handle the truth” moments. The film is very slight as a result, not high on drama but rather of principles.
Even so, the film does have moments of brilliance. An execution scene is handled incredibly well, both emotionally moving but also gut churning in tension. Two scenes of black men being pulled over are also similarly uneasy to watch knowing how those situations so frequently go down. But it’s in lines of dialogue that the film shows it’s heart. A scene in which Jackson Jr says to Rob Morgan’s death row Vietnam Vet “you served your country and got sick in the head, you should be in a hospital”. Is a pointed jab at how the mentally ill are treated.
The film, therefore, wishes to speak of the good of a man history appears to be overlooking. Less famous than Thurgood Marshall, Bryan Stevenson is still someone to aspire to be like. Sadly the film lacks guts to be particularly daring or out there, and instead sticks to convention and for a film about one situation at times appears to be talking about every case at once. Even so, this could prove to be a film that grows in stature and opens people to talking about this man and the work he has done since this chapter in history.