Just Mercy is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. It stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, and Brie Larson. The film is based on the memoirs of attorney Bryan Stevenson.
In 1987, an internship during his law studies at Harvard University prompts idealistic young student Bryan Stevenson to pursue law in the Southern United States, helping death row inmates. Following his passing of the bar exam, he returns to the south, setting up a practice with federal funding to help people who have received death sentences. Unsurprisingly, in a locale where racism still runs rampant, Stevenson finds himself in an uphill battle, defending and offering aid to several inmates and their families, but vows never to give up, no matter how stacked against him the odds may be.
Just Mercy reaches far and wide with its premise, based on an emotional and gripping true story involving Stevenson and many other players. For the most part, the movie succeeds thanks to its emotional tone, gripping odds, flawed human characters, and realistic look into these matters, never taking shortcuts in its running time of over two hours. A few characters and plot points get sidelined, but for the most part, it’s a powerful film which succeeds beautifully.
The star of Just Mercy is Michael B. Jordan, taking on the role of real-life death row defense attorney Bryan Stevenson. Jordan has proven himself to be a fine actor in recent years, from more fantasy-oriented roles to realistic ones, and he proves himself to be a fantastic choice to play the lead role here. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself the victim of racism, pessimism, and doubts, even from those he’s supposed to be defending. The odds against him and Jordan’s genuine portrayal are what make the movie so effective, and he owns every scene he’s in.
The movie is fortunate enough to have many other strong performances in its cast, including Jamie Foxx as Water McMillian, the death row inmate who may have been falsely accused of the crime which landed him in line for the electric chair. The movie isn’t afraid to show McMillian as a flawed and far-from-perfect human being rather than a saint who should just automatically be saved and easily let off. The struggle here is real, and Foxx is fantastic as he runs through every conceivable emotion throughout the film’s running time. A supporting character played by Tim Blake Nelson also gets many of the movie's best scenes, providing some much-needed comic relief.
It’s also a movie which creates a believable environment, which serves as something of a harsh revelation. While racism will always be alive in some shape or form, to see it still so prevalent in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s is harsh and shocking, particularly to those who’ve never visited or spent a prolonged period of time down there. Movies about the struggles of African-Americans against racism in America are nothing new, and the end results here may be nothing new, but it does a damn good job painting a picture along the way, showing how the events unfold impacting not only attorneys and death row inmates, but the community at large. Revelations given following the film are equally powerful, in both good and bad ways (but you’ll have to watch the movie for yourself to see what I mean)
Sadly, it can’t quite be a perfect movie. As Just Mercy bites off more than it can chew, Brie Larson is basically sidelined and gets next to nothing to do. Early in the movie we meet her lover and children, but they pretty much disappear after a while and don’t get mentioned again. One man gets arrested for an outburst in a courtroom, and the even is never referenced again. Even O’Shea Jackson Jr., portraying one of the inmates, gets nothing to do but deliver a few lines of dialogue here and there. It’s understandable not everything from Stevenson’s memoir could make it into the film, but there is a lot of that feels glossed over or unfinished as a result of what’s here… and what’s not.
Just Mercy isn’t the most original film on its subject matter, but that doesn’t stop it from being powerful, emotional, and enlightening and informative alike. It’s strongly recommended viewing despite its minor flaws.
Rating: Three stars out of four.
DISCLAIMER: All images in this review are the property of their respective copyright holders, including Warner Bros. Pictures, Endeavor Content, One Community, Participant Media, Macro Media, Gil Netter Productions, and Outlier Society. For promotional use only. All rights reserved.