Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx Star in an 8th-Grade Civics Lesson
Just Mercy is a well-intentioned, earnestly-made throwback legal drama about the true story of gross injustice committed by the state of Alabama against an innocent man condemned to die. It’s a shame the film adaptation of this story is about as memorable as an 8th-grade social studies class movie day with a substitute teacher.
JUST MERCY ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan
Running time: 136 min
It’s Monroeville, Ala. in 1987. Police arrest Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) for the murder of Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old white woman. He was out harvesting pulpwood that day, but nobody but him can prove it. One white witness places Walter at the scene of the crime right after the murder occurred. The court puts Walter on Alabama’s death row before the state even tries him.
Enter Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a newly-graduated Harvard lawyer who just moved to Alabama to help wrongly-accused death-row inmates. Along with his assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he starts visiting inmates and building cases for them, starting with Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and then Walter. This draws the ire of local prosecutor Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), who’s content to let Walter sit on death row because at least then the public has someone to blame for Ronda’s death. As Bryan and Eva continue to fight for Walter, the black community rallies around them and they take Walter’s case to the state Supreme Court.
Anyone who looks up the true story will know that the Court eventually acquitted Walter—they probably wouldn’t have made this story into a movie if he weren’t. Director Destin Daniel Cretton knows this, and instead of focusing on the hallmarks of the legal drama, like the big courtroom monologue and the dramatic cross-examination scenes, he instead focuses on the workmanship of being a lawyer.
This is the Spotlight of courtroom dramas, where one of the most dramatic scenes involves waiting for a fax. The direction suits the subject. As opposed to in his debut feature Short Term 12, Cretton’s camera isn’t flashy or showy, but it gets the job done in the end, just like Bryan. It also shows the casual machinations of the system that put Foxx on death row in a similar light. The routine nature with which some prison guards perform Herbert’s execution, juxtaposed with the emotional sendoff Herbert gets from his fellow inmates, is harrowing and is the most emotionally affecting scene in the film.
But what a job Michael B. Jordan does as Bryan. Cretton’s and Andrew Lanham’s script paints Bryan as a saint who never does the wrong thing. In another actor’s hands that could easily veer into hagiography. Jordan manages to give glimpses of the rage Bryan feels but cannot express at a system that so casually devalues human life, but that’s about all of the nuance this movie has. Foxx also gives a wonderfully understated performance. Meanwhile, Spall’s prosecutor is a buffoon caricature of an attorney with an awful Southern accent that doesn’t even sound Alabamaian, and Cretton doesn’t give Larson much to do except smoke and swear.
Just Mercy contains hints of what it could have been. Several white characters tell Bryan that Monroeville is home to the To Kill a Mockingbird Museum. “It’s one of the most important civil rights museums in the country,” Spall’s character says without a trace of irony. And there are lots of similarities between Walter’s case and the case of the fictional Tom Robinson.
Just Mercy could have taken its anti-death penalty message one step further and delved into the hypocrisy of how a town that once banned a book known for its condemnation of racism and injustice now holds a monument to it, as if that erases the past and excuses the present. It could have examined how white liberals who often tout the values of Atticus Finch are still perpetrators of a justice system that prioritizes white bodies over black lives. It could have explained more about the systemic causes of injustice, instead of a simple “all police are racist” cop-out.
Instead, Just Mercy is content to be a boilerplate legal drama about the death penalty that would like to remind you as the credits roll that one in every nine death row inmates is falsely accused.