True stories that are turned into Hollywood films are a dime a dozen these days, and they often come across as heavy-handed accounts brimming with messages that practically scream out that their subjects are important. The story being told in “Just Mercy” is true and, focusing on racism in the American South in the 1980s and 90s, yet still painfully relevant today, is as important as it gets.
The difference between “Just Mercy” and so many others (that will remain unnamed here) that relentlessly hit viewers over the head with that message is that this one is written, directed, and acted with grace rather than excess, and the result is that it’s both memorable and moving and very effective.
It’s Alabama in the mid-1980s. An 18-year-old white woman has been murdered, and there’s no suspect to be found. For the sole reason that he was a black man, considered to be an insignificant citizen, the innocent Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) was nabbed, arrested, and eventually put on death row.
A couple of years later, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), fresh out of Harvard Law School, moved to Alabama to start up and become executive director of the Equal Rights Initiative (ERI), an organization dedicated to helping low income people on death row.
Based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir “Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption,” the film pulls no punches in its condemnation of racism, not only in the treatment of everyday black citizens in the South, but also the people fighting the fight. When Stevenson first visits a local prison, he’s ordered to undergo a strip search, until a stern guard admits the demand was a joke, albeit an extremely offensive one.
The belief he picks up from one of his death row clients is that “a black man down here doesn’t stand a chance” of justice. But Stevenson knows the law, and even though he’s fresh out of school, he knows his stuff, and he’s determined to make a difference. But he has no idea how difficult and frustrating the McMillian case is going to be. And his goals are not helped by the defeatist attitude of the long-suffering and hopeless McMillian, who bitterly says of the people who framed and intend to see him executed, “They can do whatever they want.”
Though the story is mostly about these two men, there are other characters making notable contributions in the telling of it. Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, in a small, supporting role) runs ERI with Stevenson, and is soon the target of death threats just for being there. Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) is another prisoner, and the State’s key witness against McMillian, who might have lied about him to save his own neck. Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) is a snake of a District Attorney. Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan) is another death row inmate, one who feels his time is about up.
There’s a lot of anger and exasperation in the film, but some of it is buffered by a bit of nicely placed banter between prisoners in their cells, who can’t see each other but can talk all they want. The script works its way to a couple of unusually low-key but consequential courtroom scenes that allow the drama to really pick up, and give Jordan a chance to strut his stuff - in a cool and calm manner - with one of those lofty, obligatory Hollywood courtroom speeches. Before they’re over, those scenes become anything but low-key. But the characters of Stevenson and McMillian - ably aided by the actors portraying them - remain dignified throughout.
A nice touch that, since both Michael B. Jordan and the real Bryan Stevenson are on board as executive producers, is likely true, is the presentation of a couple of white prison guards as well meaning, caring people instead of going the typical movie route of portraying all of them as villains. If the film can be reduced to being about any one thing it’s about the arduous pursuit of justice.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham; directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
With Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson