Just Mercy (2019)
This is about all of us.
Racial injustice in the USA is once again an urgent discussion that Hollywood, the popular culture mirror to society, is having with the global cinema-going public. Injustice is often framed as a historical mishap left in the past, and so some of the highly documented cases such as the McMillian trial must be showcased to remind us, not only of the inherent corruption of the legal and law enforcement system against minority peoples but that the fight is ongoing.
Recently, winner of last year’s Best Picture Oscar, Green Book (2018), revealed the stark reality of what it was like to be a successful black man in the ’60s (although the film had its own criticisms, chiefly against its white savior narrative), while George Tillman Jr’s The Hate U Give (2018) commented on unwarranted and unpunished police brutality. We also had Ava DuVernay’s Limited Netflix Series When They See Us (2019), the show documenting the true story of the Central Park Five jogger case that saw five teenagers wrongfully jailed for a crime they did not commit. While this sub-genre makes it evident that our legal system is flawed, Just Mercy gives us a case and a figure who is willing to fight hard to get to the root of this inequality.
Based on the memoir titled Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by historic American lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson, the case at hand is that of Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian. Johnny D (Jamie Foxx) is a gruff-looking African American pulpwood worker from Monroeville, Alabama, an honest man earning an honest penny from his tree-chopping business to provide for his family of three living in the black neighborhood of a notoriously white town and state. Coming home from work one evening, he is taken into custody by Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) for the alleged murder of 18-year old white dry-cleaning clerk Ronda Morrison, a startling surprise for both Johnny D and the entire black community.
Meanwhile, a Harvard Law graduate, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), decides to leave his family behind in Delaware to start a practice in Alabama to defend those on death row as he firmly believes that no matter the crime, the dignity of the human person shouldn’t be taken away from them via the death sentence. Stevenson professionally partners with a white woman named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), who, although not being a lawyer herself, has devoted her whole life to coordinating legal services for the impoverished and those on death row. The pair, aware of the blatant legal and political malpractice going on in Alabama, take risks that may hamper their personal and familial security as they prepare to re-open cases to try to reverse the court’s decisions and, in some instances, convince the hopeless that there is hope for them despite a failed judicial system that has unfairly subjected them to termination of life.
Stevenson and Ansley open what is known now as the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit legal organization aiming to provide fair representation and trial for the wrongly convicted; in other words, they are both working these cases for free. While they investigate most of the inmates, the film zeroes in on Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a war veteran with PTSD, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a young prisoner who tries to keep his friends’ spirits up, and, of course, McMillian. After doing some digging, Stevenson and Ansley realize that McMillian is, in fact, innocent. To reverse the verdict, however, they’ll need more than just good investigative and legal skills, as they must maneuver their way through an overtly racist culture spearheaded by those in power, namely Sheriff Tate, District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), and Judge Foster (Lindsay Ayliffe).
Just Mercy succeeds in laying out the unrelenting pursuit for truth and the lengths that a bold, young, and ambitious Stevenson is willing to go to achieve this. The film spares no detail in displaying the gritty hard work that goes behind unraveling such a case, with various scenes of Stevenson moving from place to place in search of crucial information to get the breakthroughs he needs. We get to see the obstacles, victories, and failures of his inquiries, experiencing just how gut-wrenching a defeat can be. For instance, Darnell (Darrell Britt-Gibson), a young friend of Johnny D’s son, is threatened at work after agreeing to testify against the state. In saying this, the running time is stretched out a bit, and, arguably, the film doesn’t hold any footing until any of the legal action actually starts to unfold, but I’d go as far as to say that every piece of prep work is necessary for the lead-up to one helluva emotional climax.
How director Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12 (2013), dramatizes this fight for truth and justice makes for entertainment as palpable as high-octane action flicks. It’s also worth noting that the screenplay by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, The Glass Castle (2017), uses Harper Lee’s 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird rather shrewdly, a novel that’s set in the same town as the film, Monroeville (although it’s been renamed Maycomb in Lee’s book), and basically parallels the story being told here. The ironic connection is that Stevenson notices how much the town capitalizes on its association with Harper Lee but fails to assimilate the novel’s messages of racial prejudice and presumptions of guilt, these people using the American classic as a smokescreen to mask their cruelty and intolerance.
Cretton’s work behind on chair is well-aided by a layered turn from lead Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther (2018), who exhibits a wide range of emotions here, with a strip-search scene at the cop shop being a performance highlight; Jordan shows some real blood boiling in his veins as he tastes some of the partiality from the state’s law enforcement. Jamie Foxx’s, Django Unchained (2012), performance as McMillian is more subdued than some of his usual boisterous work but continues to demonstrate that he’s got the gravitas to carry a profoundly emotive role. On the other hand, Brie Larson, Captain Marvel (2019), is a little underutilized as Ansley — while she does have a decent amount of screen time, there’s not enough substantial backing behind her presence.
Tim Blake Nelson, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), delivers an excellent rendering of Ralph Myers, the heavily scarred inmate who wrongfully accuses McMillian of murder under pressure from the authorities. Rafe Spall’s, The Big Short (2015), portrayal of DA Tommy Chapman, however, is somewhat muddled; his stance on the trial supposedly has him in two minds after copping flak from his wife and hatred from the wider press because of a 60 Minutes expose, but Spall doesn’t give off this impression until late in the last act.
Aside from solid performances, Just Mercy’s greatest strength lies in how it extracts the rawest emotions of the situations that arise; from the rejection, bullying, and bigotry faced by Stevenson, McMillian and Co., to the rejoicing that comes when justice finally prevails. No matter what genre of film you’re drawn to, Just Mercy is guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings in the best possible way, providing the sort of inspirational entertainment to get people to stand up for what’s right and fight for a good cause!
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Cocoa Falcon