Just Mercy, 2019.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rafe Spall, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Drew Scheid, Steve Coulter, Mary Kraft, Rhoda Griffis, J. Alphonse Nicholson, and Karan Kendrick.
Just Mercy shadows world-renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson as he recounts his experiences and details the case of a condemned death row prisoner whom he fought to free.
I’m assuming co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton and director (writing alongside The Kid‘s Andrew Lanham basing the script on the memoir of defense attorney Bryan Stevenson) knew he had a formulaic and procedural legal thriller on-hand with nothing necessarily remarkable in it but had a gut instinct that with the right casting Just Mercy would work. Fortunately, the film pairs rising star Michael B. Jordan as the aforementioned Harvard graduate turned death row defendant for wronged Alabamian inmates and Jamie Foxx’s Walter McMillan (known as Johnny D to his friends) convicted of murdering an 18-year-old white girl that he had never seen before in his life.
Fresh out of school and hopeful to change the world, Bryan passes up a number of lucrative professional opportunities to fight for the impoverished and demeaned black community of Monroe County, Alabama (which also happens to be where Harper Lee penned valuable piece of literature and one of the most taught novels in all of American education, To Kill a Mockingbird) free of charge while he plants his feet for his brewing business venture of the Equal Justice Initiative. He immediately forms a partnership with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a family woman with a passion for progressive values and activism fighting against injustices and for racial equality, although neither are successful out of the gate locking down a working location whenever landlords get wind that the two are specifically looking to defend murderers, even if they are wrongfully persecuted.
Bryan’s first challenging case is that of defending Johnny D, who has an alibi and was labeled the culprit of the crime by a felon under the motivation of a reduced sentence to lie regarding the case. Upon meeting, Johnny is rather cynical and hopeless, even if Bryan is optimistic that his ideas and passion will be enough to change the world. None of the other defendants have gotten Johnny anywhere, but Bryan swiftly proves himself as a different breed by mingling with Johnny’s family and friends, wasting no time getting down to the core of the matter. Just Mercy is first and foremost concerned with fact-based drama, all of which is elevated by a captivating ensemble that contains strong supporting turns as equal to the work of Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.
Unless one is completely oblivious to geography and history, Alabama is not exactly the most open-minded of states, meaning that blatant racism is pretty much out in the open here, but wisely never diving too far into cartoonish territory that some racially charged biopics run the risk of falling into even with well-meaning intentions. District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) unquestionably has his prejudices, but his insistence on thwarting Bryan any chance he gets comes more from saving face to the general public he has sworn to protect. Some of the usual tropes are also here (a racist guard that finds sympathy and horror during his first electric chair shift) but are grounded enough in believability.
It’s not long after doing some digging (through some rather contrived plotting) that Bryan is made aware that the original testimony from criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson deep in character with a permanent scowl and some burn scars adding to his back story and personal decisions) was fabricated just to pin the murder on someone from the poor black community. Bryan also finds tantalizing evidence that should theoretically exonerate Johnny D but requires a black friend from the same community to speak up, which ends up with threats and silencing. As Bryan comes to understand that his only chance at reversing the court’s decision is by getting through to Ralph, his once impassioned thirst for justice nearly empties, requiring him and Johnny D to find support and strength within one another.
The procedural investigation is most engaging whenever it’s allowing Michael B. Jordan to act; he tells a story with his eyes and restrained anger that very few talents ever could. Jamie Foxx is also superb hitting a similarly nuanced beat, but viewers can almost sense the fighting spirit being beaten out of Bryan with every rejected motion and setback. It’s a brilliant performance that is consistently transforming and evolving minute by minute and is as rewarding as side stories involving Johnny D befriending a pair of inmates also wrongfully convicted. Rob Morgan plays a Vietnam veteran suffering PTSD that did commit the crime of planting a bomb underneath a home that killed an innocent person, but he and the film never make excuses for his actions, instead, shifting the blame on the lack of support he received for his clearly nonexistent mental instability. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is also present and supportive playing a real-life figure that would go on to be another long-standing battle for justice sided with Bryan.
While Just Mercy does admittedly contain a couple of emotionally stirring sequences, there is an unfortunate lack of urgency and tension throughout the investigation. There are multiple time jumps (the film starts in the late 80s and ends in the 90s), except whenever one occurs there’s never a sensation that Bryan is any closer to death. The film is not concerned with depicting raw horrors of social injustice, rather functioning as a feel-good uplifting legal exercise that would fall flat if not for the incredible acting across the board.
Just Mercy is just fine. However, it did when the audience award at the Chicago International Film Festival and seems to be adored for the same reasons as last year’s Green Book, so maybe it’s your 2019 Best Picture. If that’s the case, what an uninspired and disappointing choice.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com