'Just Mercy': Film Review | TIFF 2019

A very respectful dramatization of a heroic career.
1/10/2020

Before entering the Marvel universe with 2021's 'Shang-Rai,' Destin Daniel Cretton offers an Earthbound story of justice starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

A straightforward biopic that views one American's long career of fighting injustice through the lens of an early victory he won in Alabama, Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy stars Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, founder of that state's Equal Justice Initiative. Having spent three decades overturning the convictions of the wrongly imprisoned and defending anyone on death row, Stevenson has been at the vanguard of a righteous fight. So it's not surprising if the film's edge is somewhat dulled by respect for its subject, who's drawn here as more hero than man. A sturdy example of this genre, in which persistence and faith lead to the righting of terrible wrongs, it will likely move younger viewers who haven't seen many like it. Those of us who have seen truly exceptional examples (in both feature and documentary form) will be content to admire Stevenson himself, and to enjoy a rich performance by Jamie Foxx as the man he saved from the electric chair.

Foxx plays small-town entrepreneur Walter McMillian, introduced to viewers in a moment of transcendence through labor: Having just felled a tall tree, he gazes up at the hole he has just opened into the sky. It's the closest he'll get to freedom for a long time, as he's arrested on the drive home by cops who are longing for an excuse to shoot him on the spot. McMillian is accused of the long-unsolved murder of a local white girl and, in a parody of justice, he's quickly sentenced to death — despite there being no physical evidence and a multitude of witnesses (all black, unfortunately) backing up his alibi.

Around the same period, Stevenson, a Harvard law student, is working as an intern in Georgia, where he shares a human moment with a death-row inmate whose background is similar to his own. He finishes school and, over the protests of his fearful mother, moves south to defend death-row inmates free of charge. (The script, by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, might have tossed us two lines explaining how he manages to support himself.)

In Alabama, Stevenson quickly learns how resistant the white establishment is to those who sympathize with felons. In scenes that occasionally echo some of Sidney Poitier's onscreen confrontations with bigotry, he is stalked by men in police cruisers, kicked out of the office he has rented and even strip-searched when he first visits new clients in prison — demeaned by a bland-faced guard who grins at his humiliation.

A local who has signed on as his paralegal, Eva Ansley (frequent Cretton collaborator Brie Larson, in a throwaway sidekick role), lets her boss move into and work out of her home, sharing work space with her son's toys. But as their work raises eyebrows in town, the situation becomes difficult: Older viewers will immediately know that when a phone rings at night, and a young boy says, "It's for you, Mom," there's about to be a racist on the line issuing death threats.

Of all the incarcerated men whose cases Stevenson takes up, McMillian's a holdout — sure that fighting his conviction is pointless and that this young lawyer will be no better than the last, who disappeared as soon as the family's money ran out. (Bryan hears lots of variants of "that's exactly what the last guy said.") But when Stevenson arranges a meeting with Walter's wife (Karan Kendrick) and supporters, his seriousness is impossible to deny. Walter agrees to work with him, setting the film on its largely familiar procedural trek through shocking evidence of malfeasance, thwarted legal maneuvers and eventual triumph in a courtroom bathed in sunlight.

The story is most involving at its margins: Walter's friendships with the men (O'Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan) stuck in the cells next to his, for example; or scenes in which Stevenson tries to get the felon whose false testimony got McMillian convicted (Tim Blake Nelson) to admit that he lied. And in one or two harrowing moments, the film communicates the way Stevenson's up-close interaction with the institution of capital punishment informed his work. But as played by Jordan, this crusader is more Boy Scout than Erin Brockovich — a steadfast champion of the downtrodden with none of the complications that make characters breathe onscreen.

Jordan serves as straight man for the beaten-down magnetism of Foxx, whose character understands things about the world the younger man can't fathom. A couple of Foxx's scenes are transfixing enough to make you hold your breath without realizing it. The big courtroom moments the pic constructs for Stevenson, by contrast, sound like prepackaged American idealism. That's not to deny that everything he says is 100 percent true; but speeches don't always make for great movies, even in courtrooms where they beg to be delivered.

Production companies: Gil Netter Productions, Outlier Society
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Producers: Gil Netter, Asher Goldstein, Michael B. Jordan
Executive producers: Mike Drake, Daniel Hammond, Gabriel Hammond, Michael B. Jordan, Charles D. King, Niija Kuykendall, Bryan Stevenson, Jeff Skoll
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editor: Nat Sanders
Composer: Joel P. West
Casting director: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)

Rated PG-13, 136 minutes