The rights and wrongs of capital punishment have occupied many a dissertation and continue to exercise the very brightest minds. Just Mercy strips away the usual posturing and virtue signalling leaving the viewer with a simple moral judgement. Does state sponsored execution properly address murder? It's certainly not easy viewing but ultimately becomes a rewarding experience. Based on true events it’s intensely moving and heart breakingly sad.
Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) opts to represent prisoners on death row in Alabama. Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) helps him establish the Equal Justice Initiative; but they encounter open hostility from the county sheriff and weak DA Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall). Stevenson also struggles to convince inmates he can help them. Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was found guilty of murder on the evidence of convicted felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson). McMillan fears the deck is stacked against him; but a black man from the north slowly convinces a black man from the south there is still a chance. Other inmates clamour for Stevenson's services including Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam war veteran with PTSD.
Stevenson sets out to prove McMillan's innocence, and unpicks evidence that has barely been examined let alone tested. Equally, he fights Richardson's corner and explores the mitigation that should have been raised in his defence. The subject matter generates its own tension as inmates exist in a twilight world between life and death. Stevenson is the good guy trying to pull rabbits out of a hat. There's a compelling narrative bubbling away as truth and fiction meet head on.
This is superior storytelling heightened by an outstanding cast. Jamie Foxx as usual delivers a powerhouse performance; while Rafe Spall brilliantly loses his English accent with an authentic southern drawl in its place. But it's Michael B. Jordan who really stands out with an understated, thoughtful performance. He never comes across as naive or idealistic, but more an ordinary man trying to do something extraordinary with his life. If this film has a weakness it's the depressing reality that nags over and over again; how can the death penalty still exist in a world we dare to call civilised? Some may dismiss it as worthy and patronising, but few films have ever stated the facts quite so clearly.