Mainstream movies like “Just Mercy” are rare.
Despite boasting a cast of big-budget stars, it feels like a throwback to the heyday of courtroom dramas of the 1990s, where the pace is slow and deliberate and the message of injustice is strong.
Based on the book of the same name, written by attorney Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy” has a quiet rage about it, as Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a law student at Harvard University, unmasks the injustices and systemic racism that’s built into the Alabama legal system.
Helmed by “Short Term 12” director Destin Daniel Cretton, he gives Stevenson’s story an almost timeless feel. Though it takes place in 1986 in Alabama, when Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is wrongfully imprisoned and put on death row for the murder of a white woman, its soundtrack of gospel music and quiet, rural setting could be any time in the past six decades.
As an intern from Harvard attempting to get his feet wet, Stevenson learns how different his life could have turned out. He meets Henry Davis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), an inmate in Jackson, Georgia, who had a similar upbringing as him, with both growing up singing in the church choir. But Stevenson is a free man and Davis fears on a daily basis that his execution date will be set and worries about violence from prison guards.
After Davis is attacked by a guard on his way out, he tells Stevenson not to worry and to keep fighting, as he sings the Johnson Oatman Jr. hymn “Higher Ground.”
This quiet moment, punctuated with a burst of violence, serves as the thrust of Stevenson’s entrance into setting up the Equal Justice Initiative in Monroeville, Alabama, (ironically, the setting for the racially driven Harper Lee classic “To Kill A Mockingbird.”), fighting for people who have been let down by the justice system.
Chief among them is McMillian, a blue-collar worker framed for a convenience store murder. He was put on death row before he was given a trial and convicted with no evidence beyond the faulty testimony of a felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson). While he’s resigned to the fact that he may die in prison, he’s also given new optimism from Stevenson’s young, optimistic spirit.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who brought quiet dignity to people running an at-risk teen center in the all-star indie film “Short Term 12,” he transfers that gentle spirit to the prison and legal system and its characters. It spends time with not only McMillian in his prison cell, but his cellmate neighbors, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), breaking down their anxieties and dynamics as Stevenson races against the clock to keep them alive and give them a new day in court.
When Stevenson fails to save a death-row inmate from the electric chair, the movie walks a tricky line of sadness and empathy, with the syncopated clanks of cups on prison bars and cheers of support from the inmates rising above the tragic end to a person’s life.
Both Foxx and Jordan portray their real-life counterparts with understated anger and happiness. Cretton feels like he trusts the audience’s frustration to be enough to not overdo it.
While its slow burn at 2 hours and 16 minutes feels appropriate, “Just Mercy” gets a little long in the tooth trying to cover so much ground in Stevenson and McMillian’s lives, like an arc with a racist prison guard that’s resolved quickly. It also tends to spend a bit too much time digging into the legal weeds of the case and everyone involved.
But there are such wonderful moments of care, like Stevenson spending time with McMillian’s family and friends in a cramped kitchen and its powerful ending, that you’re glad that there are still movies like this getting made, no matter how scarce they are.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live