A late 2019 entrant that became available early this year enjoyed only a brief stay in theaters before being relegated to streaming services. Since we are currently unable to visit our local theater, I am reviewing films that we pay to see at home.
This is a true story, another profile of American racism that makes you gasp at how recently African Americans suffered virtual lynching through rigged justice systems, in this case that of Alabama in the early 1990s.
Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) stars as Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic recent Harvard law school grad and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This film is adapted from Bryan’s book of the same name. It tells the story of his work to overturn the wrongful murder conviction of Walter McMillian (Jaime Foxx), waiting on death row and without hope even of an appeal.
This is the first film appearance by Jaime Foxx since 2018’s Robin Hood. While not inactive since his career best performance in 2004’s Ray in which he seemingly channeled Ray Charles, this is perhaps his most powerful role in a while. Django Unchained and The Amazing Spider Man 2 were decidedly less serious films.
Brie Larson joins the cast as Eva Ansley, cofounder and longtime Operations Director for the Equal Justice Initiative. Together, she and Stevenson begin to take on the defense of seemingly hopeless death row inmates, some of whom have been framed or otherwise railroaded in a corrupt and isolated county. They are threatened and harassed by residents of a town in which justice for the murder of a local woman requires that someone, anyone pay with their life. In this case, McMillian.
It is perhaps Stevenson’s efforts outside of courtrooms where he does his best work, getting into the heads of key people previously unwilling or frightened to tell the truth for fear of personal or professional reprisals. But even with crucial new testimonies, it takes appeals to the state Supreme Court to find willing listeners.
The success of the Equal Justice Initiative has resulted in 75 overturned convictions since its founding. There were disappointments along the way. Stevenson walks one inmate to the electric chair when his appeal is denied. This takes us into a scene that feels reminiscent of an execution gone wrong in The Green Mile, but without the graphic horror of a sadistic sabotage. The experience is life altering for witnesses.
Just Mercy is interesting in that it portrays a true story worth telling. It is somewhat predictable but encouraging nonetheless. Truth and real justice triumphing over corruption and evil are always satisfying.
This is Destin Daniel Cretton’s first directorial project since 2017’s The Glass Castle, also starring Brie Larson.
Just Mercy (2019) runs 2 hour 17 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?