In the heart of Oscar season, two popular genres tend to dominate the multiplex: hard-hitting legal dramas and movies meant to provoke discussion about a hot-button topic.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy happens to fall narrowly in the middle of both of those categories. As this is the case, it tends to be doubly as familiar in some ways but also doubly as admirable in its successes, given the baggage of expectations that it carries on its shoulders. The issue at the center of the movie, the ethical ramifications of the death penalty and its staggering rate of error, has been examined on film previously. But Cretton pursues slightly different avenues to shed new light on the subject.
Our story starts in 1987 Alabama, where Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is hastily tried and convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old girl with almost no evidence. Catching wind of the case, Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) travels south to establish the Equal Justice Initiative with social worker Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). The EJI’s aim is to overturn wrongful convictions, specifically for those on death row, and McMillian’s case becomes the focal point of Stevenson’s efforts. His investigation draws the ire of many in the community who firmly believe in McMillian’s guilt, like the hot-headed district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), but Stevenson persists among the multitude of obstacles thrown his way.
Just Mercy plays out about how one might imagine. There’s the terse initial meeting between McMillian and Stevenson in which an incredulous McMillian turns Stevenson away, even though we know the plot will of course hinge on the two working together. There are the multiple run-ins with sweaty bigoted members of Alabama’s law enforcement, desperate to take Stevenson and his team down at any costs. We have the procedural feel throughout the investigation, in which pages of law books are shuffled through in order to clear McMillian’s name in court. Yet, these recognizable story beats still resonate because of the conviction of the performances on-screen and the direction off-screen.
Where Cretton finds new direction in this harrowing true tale is in the relationships between McMillian and his fellow inmates. Often in capital punishment movies, the injustice of the system is the sole focus. While this film certainly accentuates that aspect, it also focuses on the human interactions and brotherhood behind the bars. Hope and inspiration are precious commodities on death row and the modicum that can be found are uplifting to behold, even in fleeting moments. As good as Foxx and Jordan are, supporting players like O’Shea Jackson and Rob Morgan are even better in roles that allow them to deeply humanize prisoners who know they may not get a second chance themselves.
At a stout 136 minutes, the movie suffers from pacing issues and may overstay its welcome even for those who are interested in the material. Despite her real-life significance, I’m not certain that Brie Larson’s character even needed to be included in the film, much less given as much screen time since her role in the case is relatively minimal. It’s reasonable to believe that Larson, who worked with Cretton previously in the excellent Short Term 12 and terrible The Glass Castle, was recruited post-Captain Marvel success to add another familiar face to the cast list.
Despite its shortcomings, Just Mercy is a sobering and earnest examination of a broken system and the victims left in its wake.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Bad Boys for Life, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, caps off the buddy cop trilogy about two reckless police detectives who reunite once again to take down a Romanian mob boss.
Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jessie Buckley, retells the story of a renown doctor who surrounds himself with a myriad of wondrous creatures with whom he can communicate.
Playing at Cinema Center is Parasite, the current Oscar front-runner for Best International Feature Film about a lower-middle class family who slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of a wealthy family.