It’s 1987 in Monroeville, Alabama, a town that touts its literary legacy as the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. That novel’s fictionalized ideal of racial justice (however simplified) is clearly lost on some of its denizens’ real-life myopia for prejudice — manifested in Just Mercy, which adapts the true story of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (played here by Jamie Foxx).
A black man who owned his own logging business, McMillian was arrested, tried and convicted in 1987 for the shooting-and-strangulation death of an 18-year-old white woman. The verdict came down with no physical evidence, and circumstantial evidence rooted in false reports, intimidated witnesses and, as its linchpin, likely coerced testimony from a lifetime criminal. Sentenced to life in prison, McMillian then found himself on death row instead at a judge’s whim.
Enter Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard-educated lawyer seeking a meaningful outlet for his skills. Armed with MacArthur grant funding, Stevenson ventured into the deep south to establish the Equal Justice Initiative — a center intended to review cases for those wrongly convicted, unable to afford effective representation or denied a fair trial. Stevenson is not some cocky upstart ready to save mankind who needs a lesson in humility to become a great lawyer. His gift is not an unassailable navigation of appeal law. It’s conversation, compassion and the capacity to restore humanity and dignity to those who’ve seen both become distant memories behind bars.
Just Mercy offers brief backstory for Stevenson’s motivation, but generally squares up all that’s necessary in a prologue encounter between Stevenson and Henry Davis (J. Alphonse Nicholson) — a Georgia death row inmate who could very well be Stevenson’s age. The coin edge that separates their respective paths in life is barely perceptible, and their body language expresses how aware of this they are. It’s a muted, recognizably human bit of reserve that has become director / co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton’s hallmark even after just two films, the multiple career-launching Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle, the flawed but compelling adaptation of Jeanette Walls’ memoir. (As in those two films, Brie Larson turns up here as well for a subdued Erin Brockovich-ish supporting role as Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s operations manager.)
Speaking of Brockovich, it’s been almost 20 (!) years since her movie and roughly 16 since the John Grisham Cinematic Universe collapsed on itself. So it understandably takes Cretton a little bit of time to reacclimate us to the language of morally conscious courtroom dramas. (Thankfully, it’s a far cry from the cardboard-flat 20/20-isms of last summer’s Brian Banks.)
In chronicling the McMillian case, one of Stevenson’s most widely profiled, Cretton uses cinematic tactics we’ve seen before but rarely with such skillful or soulful confidence. He’s more interested in rigorous characterization than self-righteous (or self-congratulatory) fireworks of social-justice storytelling, and he sidesteps every temptation to show off — letting injustices of capital punishment internalize within more characters than you expect rather than using mere incident to incite ire.
Case in point: An unexpected humiliation when Stevenson first goes to meet McMillian. The hot-headed editorial choice would be to simply cut away to Stevenson outside the room where it happens. Intead, Cretton gives us a crisply cut montage of Stevenson alone in its wake that lets us see flickers of doubt and concern. It’s also emblematic of Jordan’s sophisticated physicality to keep clear the path to justice … and his brief, silently enraged disbelief at the persistence of monstrous persecution.
It’s an event after which it’s hard to bring his most sincere A-game, and that’s what McMillian demands. He has shrugged off the platitudes several times over and heard other lawyers rattle off the appeals playbook. Only after Stevenson takes time to meet with McMillian’s family (in an amusing visual presentation reminiscent of the town gatherings in Hoosiers) and earn their trust does McMillian accept Stevenson as the real deal. Slowly forging trust in each other, they build a mutual tenacity against a cavalcade of complications to McMillian’s retrial.
Cretton keeps the intrigue of complicity or coverups light but engaging, and even then often embedded in a certain compassion for Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the criminal whose testimony put McMillian away. Cretton also knows when to time and land the haymaker, in a devastating close to the second act — one that evokes an ultimate level at which systems fail society’s mentally ill in a way that, quite frankly, makes the Hot Topic sale-banner declarations of the same studio’s Joker feel even more embarrassing by comparison. (Don’t be surprised when Just Mercy gets blanked in those Oscar nominations on Monday morning.) The sequence is both an apex for actor Rob Morgan — a revelation as Herb Richardson, a fellow death row inmate of McMillian’s — and the movie’s sense of urgency, resolve and purpose.
From there, Just Mercy is haunted by how someone’s attendance at, or even proximity to, an execution changes them — sometimes monumentally, more often incrementally. It deepens the ideas about pursuing preservation of life in the presence of death and that no one’s mortality should be determined solely on the face of their worst deeds.
If Just Mercy stumbles anywhere, it’s in the resolution, which feels both rushed and too reliant on a few too many easy bits that let the perpetrators of perverted justice off the hook. Cretton’s usually unassailable eye for casting also fails him here, with Rafe Spall giving 2019’s worst performance in a good movie.
Spall plays Tom Chapman, the county’s district attorney who is unwilling to let a conviction go so easily. And he’s terrible. It’s like watching Ryan Reynolds on Saturday Night Live in a skit as a British actor doing a terrible Southern-accented lawyer, while wearing Sean-Penn-in-Carlito’s Way makeup. The way Spall plays the climactic courtroom scene, which hangs on Chapman’s response to a motion Stevenson has filed, feel distressingly like My Cousin Vinny. Thankfully, Jordan swoops in with that subtlety — saving the meaning of the moment with a glance driven not by appreciative acquiescence but silent anger.
Even at its least eloquent, Just Mercy is still effective — a film in which you’ll feel the satisfaction of dignity reinstated … and the concern over how far we’ve yet to go.