Michael B. Jordan both stars in and produces this true life story of the work of lawyer Bryan Stevenson. A lawyer with a long history of challenging biases against the poor and minorities in the US’s criminal justice system, Stevenson has become a highly respected figure in his field across the world. Just Mercy tells the story of one of his early cases, and one of the defining ones of his long career.
In 1989, a young Stevenson arrives in Alabama fresh out of Havard with plans to help those in the state who cannot afford proper legal representation. Part of his work takes him to visit death row inmates, and that is where he meets Walter ‘Johnny D’ Macmillan (Jamie Foxx). Johnny D has been on death row for a few years for the murder of an 18 year-old white woman and has maintained his innocence the whole time. As Brian looks into the case, he finds that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that proves Johnny D’s innocence, with his convinction being the result of a bigoted state and a desire to pin the murder on someone quickly. Brian will now do all that he can to make sure an innocent man isn’t put to death for a crime he didn’t commit.
Just Mercy tells a very human story that takes an all too recent example of systematic racism in the United States and shines a light on all the amorality associated with that. It is a heavy going affair that does not shy away from moments of devastation, despite the fact that at its core it is an idealistic story about the power of compassion. One sequence in particular around the hour twenty mark is devastatingly emotional and likely to rattle your very core.
That is where the power of Just Mercy lies. It is telling a story that contains raw human emotion, dealing with complex notions of law, order and mortality. It does feature its fair share of courtroom drama speechifying that feels a little mechanically designed in the grand scheme, but only because much of what else drives the drama feels like it comes from a place of genuine feeling and truth. That sense of truth is enforced by the strong performances from its very talented cast.
Jamie Foxx has arguably never been better as a man grappling with an extended life on death row, just waiting around to see if he’s going to live or die over something he didn’t do. His relationship with other inmates played by O’Shea Jackson Jr and Rob Morgan is where a lot of the most effective and heartbreaking drama takes place, and a lot of that comes from the three actors touching performances. Michael B. Jordan is also a great lead, demonstrating Brian’s struggle to stay idealistic in a system which seems designed to hide the truth rather than set it free with a stoic determination. Everyone involved seems invigorated by the story that they’re telling, and it makes for a lot of electrifying drama.
While Just Mercy’s true-life story hinges on a lot of complicated themes, Johnny D’s case is far from complicated. Once it becomes very clear how horrendously obvious it is that his case was warped and manipulated for a quick and easy solution. You share in all of Brian and the Macmilan’s family’s frustrations, and it makes for very engrossing viewing, one that stokes a fire in you as the blatant injustice is put out on screen. It’s more than just a courtroom drama, it is a very pertinent story that shoulders its responsibility with a steady hand and a focus that matches Brian’s idealism. It can be a tough experience, but Just Mercy is also a very rewarding one. Just make sure you bring some tissues.
Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton
Scr: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham, based on Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, Karan Kendrick, O’Shea Jackson Jr
Prd: Gil Netter, Asher Goldstein, Michael B. Jordan
DOP: Brett Pawlak
Music: Joel P. West
Country: United States
Run time: 136 min
Just Mercy is out on DVD and Blu-Ray from May 24th 2020.