Ed. Note: The following is my unpublished review of Just Mercy, a very good little film from January. While I wasn’t planning on publishing it, the fact it is available to rent for free on most streaming services in response to the recent protests against police brutality occurring around the country may spark an interest amongst readers. Below is my original review from January, unchanged and unedited
There was a point, in the late-eighties/early nineties, when the racial injustice drama was a staple every year. Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, and A Time To Kill all told stories of a group of lone heroes standing up against a racist, stubborn Southern town/state that refused to provide fair justice to African-Americans, and would often emerge on top. After several years dominating the box office and Oscar races, they eventually faded into obscurity. Now, director Destin Daniel Cretton has brought the genre back to the screen with Just Mercy, the real-life story of American Hero Bryan Stevenson and his quest for justice in rural Alabama. And while it does possess some of the shortcomings of the films that came before, it also possesses the cinematic power of these heroic stories of yore, thanks to electric writing and staggering performances by its ensemble.
Having graduated from Harvard Law School as one of the only African-Americans in his class, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama with one mission in life. Having grown disillusioned with the practice of capital punishment in this country after an experience as an intern, Stevenson sets up the Equal Rights Initiative, a federally-funded program to provide free legal services to inmates on death row who either couldn’t afford sufficient counsel or were wronged by a racist and unjust system. For a while, he and business partner Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) struggle to find their ground, due to uncooperative townsfolk and a lack of evidence for their clients. But eventually, they come across a fascinating, infuriating case: that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a family man convicted of killing an eighteen-year-old girl six years before. Despite a lack of evidence and a clearly-coerced witness statement, McMillian found himself on death row with nary a hope in sight. However, with the aid of Stevenson’s legal knowledge and passion for truth and justice, McMillian’s dreams of a second trial and exoneration are given new life.
The story of Just Mercy is, by itself, powerful enough to make for an excellent film. I mean, it’s one of my favorite subgenres: the powerful courtroom drama where racism, bigotry, and miscarriages of justice are defeated because the conspirators are really, really dumb. Every detail in this case sounds so ridiculous and over the top, you’d assume it was the filmmakers taking creative license, but no. Walter McMillian was arrested for murdering a young woman he’d never met. Despite having an airtight alibi at a church fish fry (including being seen by a police officer), he was sentenced to life in prison by an all-white jury based on the testimony of a career criminal named Ralph Myers, whom he’d never met. However, the judge – whose name was, and I sh*t you not – Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. – overturned the sentence to rule from the bench for life in prison. McMillian awaited his execution for six years before Bryan Stevenson not only found the evidence proving the case was flimsy, but found it by flipping over the tape with Myers’ confession and realizing that they had a recording of Sheriff Tate, the lead investigator, browbeating Myers into the confession, all while Myers declares “I’m not going to lie and sentence an innocent man to death!” It’s such a ludicrously obvious, clear-cut case of good vs. evil, the film has no choice to be a slam dunk (if you can believe all these insane details to be true). The only question is, can Cretton manage to present all these details in a realistic, honest way while maintaining the entertaining, engaging nature of cinema?
Now, because the racial drama is such a well-worn staple at this point, there are several portions of Just Mercy that feel like checkmarks for what needs to be done. There’s the eerie pullover where the police casually threaten the protagonist. There’s the false flag courtroom misdirect. There’s the threatening of witnesses and big reveals of evidence. There’s the threat of a bomb being placed under the porch. And there’s the big emotional speech where the lawyer wins over the judge and jury to the side of reason. All of these clichés have been done before, will be done again, and are brought out in spades in Just Mercy. And yet, in spite of the repetitiveness of such moments and themes, Just Mercy adds just enough of a spin to the material to keep it fresh, painful, uplifting, and riveting. You see, the reason these themes keep getting recycled is because these issues just never go away. When Mississippi Burning came out in 1988, Roger Ebert praised it for its important retelling of history. By 1988, people were already forgetting the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and the racism that had occurred at the time. “It was so long ago, why relive the trauma of the past?” they’d say. And while the litany of films released in the 90s did their best to remind audiences of the fairly recent traumas inflicted, eventually people went back to assuming that racism, both in the South and beyond, was a thing of the past. Even today, people assume that this level of racism and injustice were a thing of the past. I overheard just this past weekend that there weren’t any lynchings or assassinations of this kind in the 90s. These are the myths that Just Mercy looks to disperse, and it does so in clever ways. There’s a recurring theme in the film about the citizens of Monroeville’s pride that they are the “Hometown of To Kill a Mockingbird.” Not only is this detail historically accurate, it’s a brilliant piece of satire. It not only shows how far the people here are missing the point, but it draws a sharp comparison between the two miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile, the white characters who stand in Bryan and Walter’s way often utilize justifications about overcoming the sins of the past and moving past racism. Bryan himself even notes how the white folks of Alabama go about their day like black people weren’t sold at their harbor three generations ago. While Cretton is unable to infuse the material with any narrative tricks or groundbreaking stylistic choices, he still has subtlety and nuance as a powerful, skillful tool.
However, by establishing from the get go that there are no new routes to take in the realm of the corrected injustice genre, Just Mercy frees itself up to explore new angles not yet explored within the confines. Specifically, Just Mercy focuses on the power of community and perseverance in the face of true evil. The best moments of the film come when the characters sit down with those they are close to, sharing communal tics and traits that restore their humanity when confronted with inhumane treatment. For Walter, these moments come when he finds solace with inmates Herbert (Rob Morgan) and Ray (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). The trio has found peace within their prison cells, joined forever on death row by guard mistreatment, failed lawyers, and in Ray and Walter’s case, innocence – Herb did it, but during a Vietnam PTSD meltdown. The film’s best moments come when the friends discuss their cases, joke back and forth, and during an emotional climax, bash their cups against the bars in solidarity against sheer barbarism. Similarly, Bryan finds community in two separate locations, each emotionally resonating with the audience. The first comes in the form of his business, which starts literally in the living room of his partner Eva Ansley and slowly grows into a powerhouse organization of today. I’m also drawn to the scenes of Walter’s family gathered around, with outsider Bryan instantly drawn into the fold, with the aunt pouring obscene amounts of sweet tea and the uncles cracking jokes. They are a grounding force for both Bryan and Walter throughout the rest of the film, and they are the reason that the two are able to withstand the hateful torment that goes on around them. These moments of familial and communal bond aren’t just in contrast to the hate at the center of the film; they are the antidote. They are the way in which our heroes fight back against oppression, using the power of love and friendship as a motivator against the tyranny of evil, and providing a hope desperately needed in dark times. Could the film have put more emphasis on the legal strategies utilized, the change of heart that the people of Monroeville undergo to join such an organization, or find new and incisive ways to portray the racism of today? Sure. But this isn’t that kind of film, and what it does, it does well.
In terms of the performances, Just Mercy prides itself on surrounding a handful of great performances with a group of sturdy, dedicated performances. Far and away the heart of this film stems from the relationship between Jordan’s Stevenson and Foxx’s McMillian, and the film works because both actors are at the top of their game. Jordan is a solid everyman, balancing heart and brains and righteous fury with equal aplomb. Meanwhile, Foxx steals the picture as Walter McMillian, the man wrongly convicted of murder. Foxx’s emotional journey throughout the film remains one of its greatest strengths, as he can convey levity, anguish, guilt, fear, and resolute steadfastness in each and every scene, and Foxx sells it on pure talent and charisma. As the third billed star of the film, Larson is solid as Eva Ansley, even if her role solely amounts to “pro-bono white assistant who helps with the grunt work,” a la Sandra Bullock and Holly Hunter. Far more impressive are the performances by Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as McMillian’s cell mates, as they not only possess a realistic camaraderie, but also the charisma to help us care about their plights (and in the case of Morgan, whose character is actually guilty to an extent, this is no small feat). Tim Blake Nelson continues his hot streak of weird, idiosyncratic characters as a convict whose testimony is key for both the prosecution and defense, and he arguably steals the scenes whenever he appears, while Rafe Spall is perfectly typecast as the weaselly District Attorney. Finally, there are two bit players I’d like to praise from McMillian’s home life. Karan Kendrick is a commanding presence whenever she appears as the patient, loving, and unwavering Minnie McMillian, while Darrell Britt-Gibson continues his streak of terrific supporting turns as a witness for Walter who faces scrutiny and abuse from the local police.
Just Mercy is an example of the art of a telling a simple story well. It does not reinvent the wheel, nor does it pretend that it desires to. It simply wants to tell a story of goodness in the face of unwavering injustice, of good people fighting the system, and to show viewers that, despite the overwhelming odds and unrelenting evil that still exists in this country, change is still possible. Just Mercy may not tell you or show you anything you don’t already know. You may already be aware of the brutality of the death penalty, or the unproportionate number of Black people who receive the sentence, often without proper evidence. And I’m sure that if you aren’t aware, another example will present itself in the near future. But Just Mercy’s mission is not to tell you things you don’t already know. It wants to confront you with the reality you choose to ignore, and remind everyone that when you actually care, and elect to act in the face of injustice, then justice can still be restored, even if only on a small scale. It’s a pleasant film that fulfills its purpose, and that’s all we can ask for.