Even if you don’t know the story behind Just Mercy, the real-life legal drama that mirrors everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to A Time To Kill, you won’t have a hard time figuring out exactly what’s gonna happen at every step along the way. When you indeed know the exact destination of a journey, it’s the journey itself, as they say, that makes all the difference, which is precisely what makes Just Mercy such a solid effort from director Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle).
The case that serves as the backbone of the film first gained nationwide attention in 1992 via 60 Minutes. African-American journeyman Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) is arrested in Alabama in 1987 for the murder of a local white teenaged girl. Despite the fact that he was miles away in full view of more than a dozen witnesses at the time, a jury finds McMillan guilty and sends him to Death Row. Race, coercion, and police ineptitude all play roles, making it a case of immediate interest to non-profit lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), director of the newly-founded Equal Justice Initiative.
With the help of his assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Stevenson struggles to get to the bottom of the crime and prove his client’s innocence, while at the same time being forced to fight the same prejudices that railroaded McMillan in the first place. Stevenson meets with his client’s family, digs up all the old case files, and revisits witnesses—including Ralph Myers (a fabulous Tim Blake Nelson), the man whose false, coerced testimony was the only “evidence” the authorities had on McMillan.
Foxx doing his best work since 2004’s Ray, inhabits McMillan with not only grace but gentle nuance, deftly avoiding the angry-man stereotype that would have been the easy way out. Jordan, meanwhile, continues to build on the talent he’s shown us in everything from Fruitvale Station to the two Creed films, and he anchors Just Mercy with a slow-burn determination and fierce resolve. And Larson, even in what amounts to a glorified cameo, shines every time she’s onscreen.
If there’s a bone to pick, it’s with the occasionally clichéd and unnecessarily flowery script, which Cretton co-wrote with Andrew Lanham. Not as hard-hitting or as sharply pointed as it perhaps could have been, Just Mercy comes off feeling somewhat like a watered-down, Lifetime movie version of itself. But, heck, if the film is more accessible to the general public as a result (and therefore more widely viewed), all the better.
As with many films of its ilk, Just Mercy deserves to be seen far and wide. Inspirational and eye-opening, it demonstrates the power people can have when they fight for justice, particularly in a world that right now could really use a healthy dose.