‘Just Mercy’ // Film Review: Truth, Justice, and Defending the Good

It will impress those who are aspiring lawyers to understand the values Just Mercy shows forward, but it always shows that being worthy of what you’re defending against capital punishment without becoming preachy and overbearing when the credits roll. 

What’s the Story: Based on true events, young defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who’s a fresh graduate from Harvard Law, is on the journey to help death row inmate Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) from facing the death sentence after being convinced of a murder of a 18-year-old white woman he didn’t commit in Alabama to prove his innocence.

Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and Rob Morgan in Just Mercy (2019)

Destin Daniel Cretton is one of those directors that’s interesting to look out for whenever he’s attached to a project. He’s well known for helming the underrated Short Term 12, but followed up it with the disappointing melodrama The Glass Castle (both starring Brie Larson). It was interesting enough to see him follow that up with this film, based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of the same name about his experience in confronting injustice. This has been earning good buzz after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Who knows where Just Mercy will land in terms of a solid legal drama or an Oscar-bait type that will be forgotten quickly. Here, it falls under the former since it was solid.

Where Cretton is at his best is when he establishes a tone that’s ultimately fitting for a time period that can be seen as a rough reality. Just from the perspective of myself that didn’t even know this case beforehand, certain scenes where threats are being handled upon either Bryan or anyone of color just made me infuriated by thinking this was okay in the late 80s. Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham were able to take Stevenson’s story moving and engaging when we’re following everybody in research mode and doing what it takes to make this man free from prison. Two scenes, in particular, made me tear up and were emotional in its own right.

One reason I was looking forward to this was because of the talents involved. Jordan gives another great performance in his career and you just have this sense of supporting what he’s trying to accomplish with this case. You believe him when one reason he wanted to become a lawyer is to help people. Besides him, Foxx also just crunches this role and looking beyond the fact that you can see him as a real human being. His performance might not be in the Best Supporting Actor conversations recently, but it’s definitely one of his best roles in the past few years that came across as subtle. The bond they shared was nearly beautiful.

Larson plays Eva Ansley, a paralegal working with Byran on this case, and I honestly enjoyed her performance and the chemistry she and Jordan had together. I also have to give a shout out to Rob Morgan, whose screen presence as Herb Richardson, a Vietnam war veteran who suffers from PTSD after an incident, was impactful to my surprise.

But when any movie is based on a true story, you already know what will happen since courtroom dramas go about the same. Just Mercy appears formulaic, but that being said, it wasn’t too much of a problem since it was still a story that needed to be heard.

It doesn’t seem right for anybody, regardless of skin color, to have a sentence with evidence and not getting the chance to speak freely on their innocence. This also keeps a relevant topic of prejudice surrounding our country. Even with this case, they wouldn’t re-open it even though the evidence is already there to prove such. Just from watching two hours of this man’s work, Stevenson is an absolute hero for what he’s been doing in his time of fighting for the poor and minorities against the criminal justice system with the legal organization, the Equal Justice Initiative.

Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in Just Mercy (2019)

I wouldn’t call Just Mercy one of my favorite movies of the year or great enough to call it the next To Kill a Mockingbird (referenced several times) by any chance and it’s conventional for sure, but this was carried by its strong performance and an empowering tale of defending those wrongfully accused. Give this a chance if there isn’t anything satisfying this January season. Grade: B

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