VOD film review: Just Mercy
Michael B. Jordan8
Matthew Turner | On 18, Apr 2020
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall
Director Destin Daniel Cretton follows Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle with this powerful true-life drama based on a 2014 memoir by activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson. Stirringly made and superbly acted, it’s the sort of film that would have garnered deserved awards attention in a less competitive year.
Set in the 1980s, the film stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, an African-American lawyer with a Harvard law degree who moves to Monroe County, Alabama, to defend death row cases, free of charge. To that end, he co-founds the Equal Justice Initiative with local woman Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) and takes on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who’s been convicted of the murder of a white girl, despite a mountain of evidence supporting his innocence.
Beginning with McMillan’s arrest, Cretton structures the film so that the audience is left in no doubt as to his innocence. Instead, rather than unfolding as a legal thriller, the film explores issues of institutionalised racism, prejudice and poverty, noting with a bitterly ironic running joke that the story is taking place in Monroe County, birthplace of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Harper Lee. (“Check out the Mockingbird museum,” Stevenson is repeatedly told, “it’s one of the great civil rights landmarks of the South.”)
The film is anchored by a pair of powerful central performances. Jordan is remarkable as Stevenson, somehow remaining level-headed even when faced with unconscionably racist behaviour from those in authority, such as being made to strip naked by a smirking guard when visiting McMillan. Moments like that fuel Jordan’s performance, as you can sense Stevenson quietly channelling every ounce of injustice into his cases.
Foxx is equally good as McMillan (known locally as “Johnny D”). It’s by no means a showy part, but Foxx allows you to feel the full weight of his experience and the attendant death of hope – by the time Stevenson shows up, he’s already been through several well-meaning lawyers.
There’s terrific support from Tim Blake Nelson (as an unrepentant local racist whose false testimony secured McMillan’s conviction), Rafe Spall (as the despicable local DA, who just wants the case to go away) and O’Shea Jackson as a fellow death row inmate. Larson is good value too in her relatively minor role – it’s clear she took the part out of loyalty to Cretton, after Short Term 12 helped launched her career.
It’s fair to say that there are no real surprises in the way the film plays out, as it duly hits all the expected dramatic beats. However, that’s not to say that it lacks emotional weight – the speeches are suitably stirring and it’s impossible not to be moved by the central true story. More importantly, Cretton gets the tone exactly right, instilling righteous anger and rage against injustice without ever stooping to over-the-top grandstanding or sugary sentimentality. A worthy tale, impressively told.