Legal dramas can often feel less than interesting as, with a few exceptions, their outcomes are preordained. A real-life case ups the ante a bit more since people, as opposed to characters, are not as predictable. Numerous elements are combined in the new film Just Mercy in a bid to make it stand out from the many similar films that have come before it.
Harvard Law graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama in the early 1990s to try to help prisoners on death row who may have been wrongfully convicted. One of those prisoners is Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, who was convicted of killing a woman based almost entirely on the testimony of another convicted killer, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).
With the help of clerk Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) and others, Stevenson works day and night for McMillian and others like him. This being the South and Stevenson being black, he runs into absurd obstacles and racism of all types in his quest. It’s only through sheer perseverance and the help of some people willing to stand up against the system that he and McMillian stand a chance.
Directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), the film holds a steady pace that lays out the story well. There are the expected ups and downs of the appeals process, but Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham keep things sharp by not solely relying on clichés and mixing up the perspective of the story.
Stevenson is the main character and it’s his work that is highlighted throughout, but secondary characters are given a lot to do. While we don’t get to know Ansley all that well, it’s clear that she is a person of great depth and compassion. Time spent with McMillian in prison yields some of most emotion of the film thanks to his friendships with fellow death row inmates Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.).
Unlike some other films with race at their center (cough, Green Book, cough), Just Mercy is rarely heavy-handed with its depictions of racism faced by Stevenson, McMillian, and others. There are instances when a situation feels over the top, but a step back makes you realize that what African Americans face in a state like Alabama is immensely more complicated than most people can even fathom.
Jordan, as he’s shown many times in the past decade, is a strong presence even when the role calls for him to take a backseat to others. Both Larson and Foxx are saddled with some distracting hair at times, but the talent of each actor shines through despite that hinderance.
Just Mercy would be an Oscar contender if 2019 weren’t already one of the strongest movie years in recent memory. As it stands, it’s another great showcase for Jordan, Larson, Foxx, and Cretton, and a reminder that advocates like Stevenson are needed to ensure our justice system remains fair for everyone.