Just Mercy (United States, 2019)

December 24, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Just Mercy Poster

Just Mercy is the kind of high-minded tale about social injustice that often opens around this time of the year. Despite the whiff of “Oscar bait” surrounding the production, it’s a well-made, affecting tale about do-gooders who do good rather than merely muddying the waters. It’s a clear-eyed look at the ugly side of jurisprudence and how the concept of justice often requires a lot more than appearing in a courtroom and trusting to the rightness of one’s position – especially if you’re a black man who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When it comes to “solving” a heinous crime to pacify an angry public, some law enforcement officers aren’t above scapegoating an unlucky soul whose misfortune was to be in the general vicinity of where the murder took place.

In this instance, that unlucky soul is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an innocent victim of a sham trial and a bigoted system. Arrested in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year old (white) girl, McMillian has been on death row for about five years when lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Alabama with an offer to represent him in an attempt to obtain a new trial. Helped only by an anti-death penalty activist, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Bryan discovers how deep the prejudice runs, especially within the local police department, and the degree to which the evidence against McMillian had been trumped-up. Stevenson faces an uphill battle against a system rigged against exonerating convicted prisoners, even when those convictions are obviously unjust. 

Just Mercy reminded me of the 1999 Norman Jewison film, The Hurricane, another true story about a wrongly convicted black man who fought for his release from behind bars. The earlier film, which starred Denzel Washington, was more melodramatic and passionate but made many of the same arguments. Martin Luther King’s dream may have been that black people be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin but, far too often in legal entanglements, the color of their skin is all the police choose to see.

The movie falls into the well-loved movie category of the “crusader for justice.” Most early films of this sort (like To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the Harper Lee novel but famously adapted starring Gregory Peck) focus on a white lawyer defending a black man. Recently, however, with films like Marshall and this one, the tide has shifted toward instances when individuals of color have filled the role of legal representative. This provides a unique perspective of the difficulties in the absence of a “white savior.” The triumph in Just Mercy is sweetened by the realization of how the odds are stacked not only against the defendant but his lawyer as well.

Just Mercy, which avoids using Hollywood conventions as often as possible (this is one of those true-life stories where they aren’t needed), attracted top-notch talent. Michael B. Jordan, critically acclaimed for roles as diverse as Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther, fills the lead, presenting Stevenson as a dogged champion who isn’t dissuaded by personal threats and professional setbacks. Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for Room, has a relatively minor supporting role that allows her to add her name to the production even though her on-screen contributions are negligible. Finally, Jamie Foxx, compelled to take the role for personal reasons, turns in what could arguable be the best performance of a varied career. (Others might say that the distinction belongs to his work in Ray.)

Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously made Short Term 12 with Larson and will soon enter the MCU with the Shang-Chi movie, presents the story in a straightforward fashion, highlighting the bigotry of the 1980s/90s Deep South with what some may find to be too-broad strokes. Just Mercy is political in its determination to bring greater attention not only to McMillian’s story, which has been resolved, but to the systemic factors in his incarceration and conviction, some of which have not. The bottom line is that, taking skin color out of the equation, the wrongful application of the death penalty calls into question the nature of justice in the United States, making the efforts of men like Stevenson all the more important in restoring legitimacy to the legal process, especially in capital cases.

Just Mercy (United States, 2019)

Run Time: 2:16
U.S. Release Date: 2019-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Adult Themes)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1