July 25, 2024

Film Review: “Just Mercy”

It would be a massive understatement to say that 2020 has been a trying year unlike one any of us have experienced before. The shared experiences of humanity were unprecedented. First, in an attempt to save our lives and the lives of our fellow man, we as a species went into lockdown to protect ourselves from the deadly COVID-19. Then came the horrific death of George Floyd and suddenly a discussion that had been allocated to the back burner was getting the attention it deserved. It unexpectedly but welcomely united the voices of not only people from Minneapolis, or the United States, but the globe. A long-needed and often difficult conversation is finally being had. To add their voice to this global discussion, several studios have made their relative content available for free for the coming weeks. Hence, you can find Destin Daniel Cretton’s 2019 courtroom drama “Just Mercy” available to watch for free on several streaming services.

The film begins in 1980s Monroeville, Alabama, with Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) being pulled over on his way home from work in connection with the murder of an 18-year old, Ronda Morrison. The connection- “he looks like a man who could kill somebody.” Also working against him is the town full of enraged folk demanding someone to pay for the girl’s murder. The local police do all they can to make that happen. Almost inevitable for a black man accused of murder at the time in Alabama, he was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, all for a crime he did not commit. The irony, this injustice all occurs in the town that takes pride in being the home of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” museum – a film set around a similar case.

Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson in “Just Mercy” (Photo: Warner. Bros.)

The McMillan (also known as Johnny D) case serves as the central storyline, but in telling it we also learn the story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan). He is a Harvard-educated lawyer who forgoes the more attractive job opportunities available to him and chooses to represent innocent prisoners on death row in Alabama who cannot afford legal representation. As he takes on the cases of Johnny D and other inmates’ cases we see the challenges he is up against, mainly a corrupt system with no intentions of changing its ways. While others have forgotten these people Stevenson makes it his mission to ensure justice is served.

This may feel familiar, and it should since numerous films have covered the same subjects with a similar textbook procedural approach. It still remains captivating to watch as Stevenson works his way through the case details, each turned stone reveals a more vile truth. Every step he takes is blocked by a town that is determined to uphold Johnny D’s conviction. The systemic injustices that surround the McMillan case and the Stevenson’s challenges working around them could have provided enough of a story to tell. Cretton tries to tackle much more. Although ambitious, it leads to “Just Mercy” becoming unfocused at times and struggling with pacing issues as it bites off more than it should.

Is it a film about race, unfair treatment of the poor in the justice system, the south, a biopic, or a reflection on life on death row? It tries to be all and by doing so it disrupts its flow. As several additional inmates are met and their stories told, we hear barely establish an emotional connection before we are swept away in another direction. Some of these stories are revisited others are not. Each one of these prisoners’ stories would have resonated more and the film as a whole would have benefited a more nuanced approach. While individually powerful they tend to get lost in the shuffle.

The film shines in some of these smaller moments, both the brutal and the hopeful. The unnecessary and dehumanizing strip search of Stevenson is tough to watch and the tense unlawful roadside police stops give a glimpse of how corrupt life can be in for African Americans in this racist world. The film’s most powerful scenes are found in the time spent inside death row. It’s where we find the glimmers of light in all the darkness, especially in a quiet moment between Johnny D and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) a prisoner awaiting his execution by electric chair for a bombing that killed a young girl. Johnny D soothes his distraught friend, shifting his focus from the grim, his upcoming execution, to the calm, imagining looking up to the sky peeking through surrounding trees. It is beautiful and frankly more sobering than any of the courtroom scenes.

Tim Blake Nelson in “Just Mercy” (Photo: Warner. Bros.)

“Just Mercy” is carried by its strong performances that elevate these scenes beyond the melodrama they could have leaned toward. Michael B. Jordan gives another attention-worthy leading man performance that will certainly cement his place near the top of Hollywood’s top leading men. As Johnny D, Foxx delivers an understated performance as a near-broken man fighting to retain hope even while the world continues to cheat him – one of his best in years. His fellow brotherhood of inmates is portrayed with a depth that breathes more humanity into characters that are often portrayed in a sympathetic light. Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan’s work resonate as inmates who have come to terms with their fate and convey a sadness that runs deep into their veins.

Unfortunately, not all actors are served as well by the script. Brie Larson is barely recognizable behind a bad 80s perm and is given little to do as, Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s supportive legal assistant. A real shame since her first collaboration with the “Short Term 12” director put her on my radar – one of my favorite performances of that year. Then there’s Michael Harding’s racist Sheriff Tate who is written as a one-dimensional character that feels out of place surrounded by the more subtle performances. Neither sinks the ship, but neither do much to keep it afloat either.

Even if the courtroom scenes in “Just Mercy” are presented in a surprisingly straightforward, safe fashion, Johnny D and Stevenson’s stories remain engaging and important viewing, especially in these times. And Foxx and Jordan’s gripping performances are alone well worth your time. Hopefully, this film’s free streaming will allow it to reach wider audiences who would typically skip over it for another Marvel film. It is rated PG-13 with little objectionable content besides the detailed crimes and the use of the N-word. Otherwise, it might be the ideal film to show younger adults who have not been exposed to films of its type and need exposure to the world they live in beyond the filtered lives usually presented on their phones.

 

3.5

Quick Scan

While it does not tread on much new ground, “Just Mercy” delivers an often powerful and important story on top of some strong performances.

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