It’s a busy time of year at the movies, as Oscar nominations are imminent and theaters are booked with that odd mix of year-end must-see movies still playing on the big screen and the kind of low-brow stuff weekends in January are made for. Into this fray comes Just Mercy, the latest from Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle, Short Term 12) and based on the true story of lawyer and advocate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his years-long battle to prove the innocence of death-row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). In a year with noteworthy films like Dark Waters and Clemency, both steeped in the inequities and bureaucracy of the American justice system featuring remarkable performances, go nearly unnoticed, it’d be a shame if Just Mercy, a film similarly concerned with righting wrongs and doing the hard work that requires, met a similar fate.
The film, co-written by Cretton with Andrew Lanham, is based on Stevenson’s memoir as it chronicles his graduation from Harvard, his move to Alabama and his founding of the Equal Justice Initiative, an advocacy group with a mission to provide legal services to those wrongly incarcerated. Focusing as it does on his earliest years as a working lawyer, the film follows Stevenson and his founding partner, advocate Eva Ansley (longtime Cretton collaborator Brie Larson) as they set up shop and dig into a defining case for the organization, that of McMillian (known to his family and friends as Johnny D), wrongly convicted of the murder of a white woman despite evidence that proved he couldn’t have been anywhere near the crime scene at the time it happened.
On the verge of preachiness at several moments throughout, Cretton and team do well to keep the film on just this side of over-earnestness because the subjects at hand—systemic racism, basic human rights, our fundamental belief of innocence until proven guilty—are so damn important. Jordan and Larson so passionately inhabit their real-life characters that one comes to understand what it means to have a calling in life and commit to it with every fiber of one’s being. Similarly, Foxx’s performance as a man jailed for a crime he knows he did not commit (and worse, one he was framed for by co-erced, false testimony from another actual criminal) is as arresting as it is heartbreaking. Though based on Stevenson’s memoir, Cretton finds ways to take us into the prison with Johnny D and fellow inmates; a particular sequence fairly early on follows a man to his death in the electric chair and it is one of the most harrowing film scenes in recent memory (Rob Morgan’s performance is gut-wrenching).
Credit is due to the film’s production team, including Sharon Seymour’s production design and Francine Jamison-Tanchuck’s costumes; the bulk of the film is set in the 1990s, and everything from the hairstyles to the TV sets clue us in to the era, one that feels like yesterday and also a world away (at least in terms of technology and politics). When McMillian’s case makes national news (a “60 Minutes” segment is credited with drawing the attention needed to get the judicial system to take notice), Cretton cleverly integrates the created world of the film with the very real footage of coverage of the case at the time. That and the thoughtful epilogue at the end of the film that offers an update on Stevenson, Ansley and the EJI today, all infuse the film with a sense of urgency that reminds us these are not just actors on a screen but very real, very human stories unfolding around us every day.
There are plenty of films that address these same issues, of course, and some would say do it better than Just Mercy; indeed, at times the lines Jordan has to deliver feel more like a protest sign or a bumper sticker than actual words people say to each other. One wishes the film had a bit more finesse in these nuanced moments, but that shouldn’t detract from the core of the film’s value as a worthy exploration of a system that needs shaking up and the people willing to do it.