Synopsis: After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian, who is sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running Length: 137 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: There’s always a dilemma in missing an early screening of a movie and waiting to see it after it is released to general audiences. I had the opportunity to see Just Mercy back in October at the Twin Cities Film Festival and again in late December for a press screening but wasn’t able to attend either showing due to other commitments. This was a disappointment because I had been looking forward to this high-profile studio film starring rising A-Lister Michael B. Jordan and Academy Award winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson in a true-life legal drama. With buzz out of initial festival screenings that it could be a crowd-pleasing awards favorite, I wanted to be able to see it early, yes, but also with a packed house to get their reaction as well.
So, I couldn’t have that group experience, though I don’t think Just Mercy is meant to be one of those roof-raising stand up and applaud your noble defense attorney movies in the first place. Though it could be unfairly compared to a TV movie of the week because of its familiar story line of ambitious attorney battles Goliath bigoted legal system, it’s the small gentle touches that make it special. You get a sense it’s wrong emerging from Destin Daniel Cretton’s fourth feature feeling entertained because there is nothing fun about its racially charged subject or the picture it paints about the conviction rates of the past, present and future. It’s a somber and sobering look at the life of one man at the beginning of his journey in the fight for social justice and the individuals that had an impact on setting him on his path.
Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Jordan, Creed) turns down offers from bigger (i.e. better paying) firms in better ports of call in favor of moving to Alabama to defend inmates wrongly convicted of crimes. Inspired by an early meeting with a death row inmate he formed a connection with while he was still a law student, he starts the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Larson, Captain Marvel). Seeking to provide a pro-bono defense for death row inmates who may not have received a fair trial due to their social class or ethnic background, Stevenson and Ansley come up against communities that sees them as nothing more than trying to free murders and rapists. They face opposition from the start. No one will rent them space for their office, Ansley receives bomb threats at her house, Stevenson is targeted by the local police and, in so many words, told to keep out of their business.
Marketing for Just Mercy would suggest that all of Stevenson’s time is devoted to working on overturning the conviction of Walter McMillian (Foxx, Django Unchained) who was accused of killing a teenage girl and given the death penalty despite a mountain of evidence proving he was innocent but that is a bit deceiving. While it’s true that the bulk of the film revolves around the relationship that forms between the two men, there’s a significant amount of time spent with inmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) a veteran with PTSD on death row that also comes under Stevenson’s banner. Both men have an impact on the lawyer Stevenson becomes and especially the time he spends with Richardson informs how Stevenson approaches the numerous setbacks he faces in the McMillian trial. As Stevenson digs deeper in the McMIllian case, it opens the old wounds of a community that used the McMillian conviction as a Band-Aid to heal after the violent murder and aren’t willing to look at any evidence suggesting McMillian was innocent.
As this is based on a true story, the outcome of everything is right there for you to see if you choose to spoil things for yourself before going in, but I’d advise staving off that knowledge if possible. I went in knowing nothing and it added to the tension of not being able to predict what would happen next and if justice would be served after being denied for so long. The answers aren’t always what we want or how we expect to receive them but overall there’s a strength in Cretton’s script, though at 137 minutes the film is slightly circuitous in its path to get there. What I can say is that the events in the film had a lasting impact on the lives of everyone involved and the work continues to this day — be sure to stay until the credits are fully rolling to be brought up to date with where things are presently.
Continuing to show he’s going to be one of the next generation of Movie Stars (the capital and M and S are purposeful), Jordan can come across as overly earnest as Stevenson but it’s exactly the right approach for the recent grad having his eyes opened to the certain realities. He’s not naïve enough to think justice is always blind or that everyone is treated the same but watching his spirit get a bit broken during a cruel strip search his first-time visiting McMillian in jail is hard to watch. With McMillian, Foxx has his best role in years and should have had an Oscar nomination to show for it. The resolution to his situation and a body bereft of hope is evident when Stevenson first meets him, and Foxx creates a nice kind of magic letting the hope seep back into his person when the tides seem to turn in his direction. Both men have an electric chemistry with Foxx the actor taking a fatherly role over Jordan — I can’t say for sure but it feels like the two got along like gangbusters and it shows onscreen. Though their characters struggled to trust at first, the beauty found behind the walls eventually broken down is extraordinary.
Having worked with Cretton several times now, I’m surprised Larson didn’t have more to do. She’s determined and confident as Ansley but goes missing for long stretches only to appear again to give Stevenson a pep talk or be a sounding board – so it winds up feeling like a utilitarian role rather than a pivotal one. In some ways, I thought Morgan’s troubled death row veteran outshone Foxx. He’s honestly the heart of the film and he’s got a whopper of a showcase that will easily get him work for the next several years. Every film needs a villain or villain-adjacent and while it’s hard to cast the legal system into one person, Rafe Spall (Prometheus) as the stubborn District Attorney refusing to see the evidence presented to him fits the bill just fine. Some may find Tim Blake Nelson (Angel Has Fallen) as a key witness to be slightly on the broad side but considering that Nelson had to add a speech disability that distorts his face, I found it to be an effective performance. I also couldn’t write this review and not mention the enormous contribution of Karan Kendrick (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and her solid turn as McMillian’s devoted wife who rallies her community behind Stevenson and her spouse. There’s more to the role than simple love and support and Kendrick makes the most of her few scenes.
Plenty of movies have been made about the failure of our justice system to serve the men and women that can’t afford the kind of defense that would prove their innocence and plenty more will be made in the future. Each has it’s own story of lines being crossed and motivations that are less than noble winning out over the quest for the truth. All are worthy stories to tell because maybe it will prevent one more person from being wrongfully convicted of a crime. Just Mercy may not have set out to change the way lawyers work with their clients, prosecutors pursue a conviction, juries weigh the facts, or judges deliver sentencing but it does highlight there is still work to be done to get it right.