Directed by: #DestinDanielCretton
Just Mercy is one of those awards-favourite dramas that can easily invite great cynicism from an audience. It is about two men overcoming adversity to fight a corrupt system and secure the right to liberty. It is based on an important true story and it features famous actors in meaty roles. Yet Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is important, and it is moving, and it does feature some excellent performances. Just Mercy is everything you would expect it to be from the trailer, but it is certainly no disappointment.
The film tells the story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a lawyer from Delaware who, straight out of Harvard, decides to move down to the deeply racist state of Alabama in the late 1980s and set up the Equal Justice Initiative, fighting for those on death-row. Stevenson wants to “help those that need it the most” and is desperate to support those from poor, predominantly African-American families who have received little-to-no legal representation and thus have never had the fair trial they deserve.
Among them is Walter ‘Johnnie D’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx), awaiting execution for the brutal murder of an 18-year-old girl. Stevenson quickly discovers the startling lack of evidence with which McMillian was convicted, and it soon becomes clear that McMillian is not in prison because he is guilty, but because the cops needed someone to blame and he ‘looked like’ someone who might be a murderer. Despite the overwhelming desire to keep McMillian behind bars, Stevenson decides to defy the DA, the local Sheriff, and much of the town’s population by fighting for a man he believes is innocent.
It is easy to be sympathetic with characters in a film such as this, and to be angry at the continuing prejudice in our society. The job of the film, perhaps, is to really make us feel the anger and the pain at the heart of the drama. Whilst the vast majority of Just Mercy’s audience will never even get close to suffering like Walter McMillian suffered, a film can impart a taste of the frustration, rage and futility that form the backbone of injustice. It takes some time for Just Mercy to achieve this, but when it does the film becomes more involving, and its eventual dramatic pay-offs all the more satisfying.
Deciding not to shy away from the horrific nature of the electric chair, Cretton makes us understand the anguish and fear of the death-row inmates by obscuring the violence itself but giving us a clear glimpse of its effects. In one particularly chilling scene, the very smell of execution is described, a scene that is disturbing to the core. In another one of the film’s most powerful moments we see the inmates banding together, led by McMillian, to support one of their own. Just Mercy gives us the impression that so many of these men are here either unfairly or on totally false grounds, that shared injustice and literal gallows humour has brought them together.
The film was scripted by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, adapting Stevenson’s own memoir. In the grand Oscar-clip speechmaking the dialogue is strong and forceful, if never fully taking flight. This is indicative of an often low-key, natural approach to their writing. It highlights Stevenson’s intelligence but doesn’t give him an Aaron Sorkin-esque articulacy superpower, nor does it detract from the overall thrust of the story. Lanham and Cretton do a good job in their story construction, with a good flow and pacing to the action; they never get bogged down in detail, nor rush to their conclusion.
The #filmmakers make a smart move in spending as much time on the unsuccessful parts of Stevenson’s journey as his triumphs over adversity. It allows us to share in the soul-crushing monotony of the DA and Sheriff’s continuous refusal to take him seriously, and the maddening denial of basic facts that Stevenson and McMillian were up against. Cretton frames Stevenson and co. as heroes, willing us to cheer them on as they fight the good fight, only to despair as they are beaten down again and again by Alabama’s deeply ingrained racism.
As the story progresses, so much of it is dependent on Jordan and Foxx to sell the pain and determination of their journey. The latter does a fantastic job of displaying the strong, kind heart in McMillian that makes him into a caring friend and even idol for those around him. Foxx’s great skill here, though, is in mixing this sweetness with the deep heartache of a victim of injustice, and the embittered edge of someone who understands the overwhelming prejudice he is up against. It is a superb supporting turn from Foxx, and he is joined in a less showy performance by leading man Jordan. There is a stately, reserved and dignified goodness to his Stevenson, imparting the sense of a man who is so thoroughly decent and smart that dealing with the wilful stupidity and prejudice of those around him is a constant challenge.
There are eye-catching turns elsewhere in a strong cast featuring the likes of O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Rafe Spall; Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan are especially superb as other convicts. The latter’s role is particularly moving, playing a Vietnam War vet whose PTSD led him to set off a bomb which killed a young girl. In contrast to McMillian, he has to face the barbarity of the death penalty with a sense of guilt hanging over him. It is a heartbreaking story and one that is beautifully told, adding to rather than distracting from the central McMillian case. Wasted, however, is Brie Larson as Stevenson’s right-hand woman in the Equal Justice Initiative Eva Ainsley. She acts almost solely as a crutch for Stevenson’s character development and gives the Oscar-winning Larson little substance to work with.
Just Mercy is a good, probably very good film; I’m not sure it is a great one. It tells a story of familiar beats in a familiar way, taking few risks. Yet I don’t think reinventing the wheel was ever on Destin Daniel Cretton’s mind when making this. Instead, he focuses on honouring the incredible people who inspired Just Mercy with a solid, affecting film. The director knows the weapons he has at his disposal, giving Jordan and Foxx the chance to shine, and pulling at the heartstrings when he needs to. Most importantly, he knows the strength and importance of his story, and he tells it admirably.