Just Mercy isn’t what you would call groundbreaking — you’ve seen this kind of legal drama before, many times over. But the hard truths about racial injustice in its fact-based storytelling come through loud and clear, thanks to stellar performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.
Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a young man fresh out of Harvard law who, in 1989, decides to start an Equal Justice Initiative in Monroe County, Alabama, to take on the lost-cause cases of inmates on death row. Such a client is Walter McMillian (Foxx), a.k.a. Johnny D, a small-town lumber-company owner who is framed for the murder of a teenage white girl. As a result of deep-grained racism and two ineffective previous attorneys, McMillan is reluctant to accept Stevenson’s no-fee offer to have another crack at his case. In the compelling true-life legal drama that director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) and co-writer Andrew Lanham have adapted from Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, it’s lost on no one that the crying need to fight for civil rights hasn’t diminished in the three decades that Stevenson’s organization has successfully challenged the death row convictions of more than 125 inmates. No wonder that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called Stevenson “America’s Mandela.”
Jordan pours his heart and soul into the role of the crusading attorney. And Foxx, deservedly nominated as Best Supporting Actor by the Screen Actors Guild, exudes ferocity and buried feeling as a man who is close to giving up hope. Here in Alabama, he tells Stevenson, “you’re guilty from the moment you’re born.” It fits McMillan’s words that the film’s soundtrack includes the slave song “No More Auction Block” and that black men were sold near the courthouse where his case is being tried. It’s hard to miss the irony that the citizens of Monroe Country point with pride to resident Harper Lee, whose prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, indicts the very injustice being inflicted on McMillan.
Commendably, Just Mercy does very little to gild the lily. Cretton plays by the rules of a strict, legal procedural, which sometimes flattens the drama inherent in the corruption of the judicial process. It’s the actors who make this real-life legal procedural come alive. They include Oscar winner Brie Larson, a Cretton regular, as Eva Ansley, a local advocate who allows Stevenson to use her home as the official center for his Initiative when the community closes its doors and issues threats to the safety of Ansley and her family. And to avoid portraying Stevenson as a miracle worker, we see him take on clients he can’t save, such as Herb Richardson (a superb Rob Morgan), a war vet with PTSD who is guilty of setting off a bomb that killed a woman. Stevenson’s pleas for Richardson and against capital punishment can’t stop Richardson’s walk to the electric chair.
And the film painstakingly recreates the obstacles Stevenson faces. They include corrupt district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) and key witness Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), the convicted felon whose testimony against McMillian was most likely coerced by police. The reliably fine Nelson brings traces of humanity to the role of a twisted bigot.
The heart of of the movie stays focused on McMillan and his family, with his wife (Karen Kendrick) presenting a picture of her husband as a flawed man who is nonetheless incapable of the crime for which he stands accused. Foxx’s nuanced, finely-calibrated acting allows us to see McMillan as a casualty of a system that tries to paint over the rot that’s festering inside. The court fight that ends the film — with Stevenson putting racism itself on trial — points to a small victory among many defeats. Society remains unexonerated. The real battle is still to be won. That’s the power of Just Mercy. It demands that you bear witness.