There’s almost a running joke in Destin Daniel Cretton’s courtroom drama ‘Just Mercy’ about how the film’s primary location Monroeville Alabama, is home to the museum of author Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – something every citizen feels the need to advertise to all visitors.
Although they take great pride in being the home and source for the classic literature, the joke is that given the novel’s themes about morality, social inequality and the law – the citizens of Monroeville show very little care for the pursuit of actual justice when it comes to actual crime in their town.
Even the district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) – without a drop of irony describes it as “one of the civil rights landmarks of the deep south”. Just Mercy tells the true story of defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) – a Harvard law graduate from Milton Delaware who started the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in the late eighties. He specialises in providing legal assistance for those from disadvantaged backgrounds – particularly cases pertaining to black death row inmates.
He takes on the case of Walter “Johnnie D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) whose awaiting execution for the heavily publicised murder of 18 year old white girl Ronda Morrison. After combing through the case and meeting with Johnnie D’s family and community (one and the same), Bryan believes there has been a gross miscarriage of justice and that he has been wrongfully convicted. The pinnacle piece of evidence being the false testimony of a convicted murderer (Tim Blake Nelson) who fingered Johnnie D in exchange for a plea deal. So Bryan along with his operational director Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) build a new case for Johnnie D which is met with met with bomb threats and harassment from not just angry locals but the authorities too.
From the opening scenes of Just Mercy, screenwriters Cretton and Andrew Lanham let us know of the danger that awaits Bryan. Upon first visitation to the W.C Holman Correctional Facility, Bryan is subjected to an invasive strip search before he’s granted access to see his client. It’s an uncomfortable example of the ingrained racism and discrimination that was still an ongoing issue for African Americans in the nineties.
Michael B Jordan gives a beautifully understated performance as Bryan Stevenson. He’s a lawyer who takes a personal interest in those that he represents. His chemistry with Walter feels organically natural because of his innate gift to emit compassion and empathy. Jordan is known for his reliable swaggering charisma but it’s refreshing to see him play someone as humble as Bryan.
Foxx is equally impressive as the soft spoken Walter. Much like Jordan it’s a role which showcases Foxx’s (often overlooked) versatility. Some of his most effective scenes are watching him breathing and trying to calm down fellow death row inmate Herb (an excellent Rob Morgan). Both Foxx and Jordan bounce off one another effortlessly – it’s one of the best onscreen pairings of the year.
The problem with Just Mercy is that it hits every familiar beat you would expect from a court room drama. The plot is not exactly new (wrongly sentenced prisoner is proven innocent) but what saves this film from generic fodder is its captivating performances and how it exposes the flawed nature of capital punishment. As the end credits rolled I found myself stunned to learn the margin of errors that occur when it comes to those on death row. The result is distressingly high.
To Summarise, Just Mercy is a heart-warming, crowd-pleasing social justice film that reminds us of the fundamental importance of compassion. It hits all the right dignified notes and while it can be somewhat bland and a touch longer than it deserves, its grounded by its powerful performances from the two focal characters.