Producers: Gil Netter, Asher Goldstein and Michael B. Jordan
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenplay: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
Cast: Michael B. Jordan. Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Karen Kendrick
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
This is the sort of true-life story that we have seen before, on both the big screen and the small. An idealistic young lawyer takes on the case of a wrongly-convicted death-row inmate and faces off against a segregationist state establishment. It’s a formula that has succeeded before; it does so again here, even if one occasionally regrets a lack of subtlety in the telling.
“Just Mercy” is based on the story of Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville, Alabama, who was found guilty of killing an eighteen-year old white girl in 1986, despite the fact that numerous witnesses could testify that he was elsewhere at the time of the murder. Sentenced to death, he was awaiting execution in 1988 when Bryan Stevenson, a recent Harvard Law graduate, was, with the unstinting support of a dedicated activist named Eva Ansley, establishing the Equal Justice Initiative, designed to provide representation for prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes in Alabama. Stevenson persuaded the initially reluctant McMillian to allow him to mount an appeal, and after five years of investigation and legal maneuvering, won his exoneration.
McMillian’s story is a chronicle of official injustice of the sort that inevitably makes one’s blood boil, and was a natural for coverage on “60 Minutes” in 1992, a segment that brought Stevenson’s fight to national attention and undoubtedly infused it with new energy—as well as striking a degree of fear into the Alabama authorities who were still intent on upholding the tainted conviction and executing the innocent man.
Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “The Glass Castle”) based the script he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham on Stevenson’s memoir, and follows the intricacies of the case fairly closely, though necessarily with some concision and simplification. Via flashbacks we see McMillian arrested and railroaded by the local sheriff (Michael Harding), who throughout the entire process will push for the verdict to be upheld. In the present, attention is given to Walter’s devoted wife Minnie (Karen Kendrick) and his intense, hot-tempered son John (C.J. LeBlanc), as well as their supportive family and friends.
An especially important plot thread focuses on Ralph Myers, the man pressured by the sheriff to identify McMillian as the killer in return for a lighter sentence. Stevenson has a succession of interviews with the troubled man that will eventually lead to the recantation of his testimony, although even that will not prove decisive in budging segregationist judges from proceeding with McMillian’s walk to the death chamber.
The film also offers sharply etched portraits of the other death-row inmates surrounding McMillian. The most poignant of them is that of Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a troubled Vietnam War veteran who admits his crime—killing a woman with a bomb he set on her porch. Guilt-ridden, he was nonetheless poorly represented, and his slow, sad procession to the electric chair as his fellow prisoners (played by, among others, O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) salute him from their cells carries a real punch, especially since Morgan’s performance is so rich with nuance.
The major portion of the film, however, is the relationship that develops between Stevenson and McMillian, and Cretton is fortunate in his leads. As the lawyer Michael B. Jordan gives a controlled, unfussy performance that shows Stevenson’s composure when when he is threatened by local police; yet one senses the anger beneath the placid surface. It contrasts well with the more histrionic turn by Jamie Foxx as Walter. Jordan’s is, in fact, a very generous turn, allowing Foxx to have the spotlight and supporting him in it unstintingly. As Ansley, Brie Larson—who’s been something of a muse to Cretton, having appeared in both “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” skillfully portrays a woman who, in her own way, is as heroic as her Captain Marvel character in a very different picture.
The rest of the cast offer uniformly solid turns, with Rafe Spall standing out as conflicted District Attorney Tom Chapman, himself an erstwhile public defender, who initially supports the state’s case against McMillian but finally breaks with the hard-liners surrounding him to support Stevenson’s motion to dismisses the charges. Even more effective is Tim Blake Nelson’s depiction of Myers; it’s a performance of grins and twitches that undoubtedly plays to the rafters but is nevertheless a show-stopper; it also has the virtue of making Foxx’s turn, which might otherwise seem excessive, appear relatively restrained.
As paced by Cretton and edited by Nat Sanders, “Just Mercy” can feel rather slow, and at well over two hours it’s quite long for this sort of true-life legal piece. But it’s technically solid across the board, with Sharon Seymour’s production design and Brett Pawlak’s cinematography are fine. Joel P. West contributes a nicely unobtrusive score. One of the points made on more than one occasion in “Just Mercy” is that the locals in Monroeville are quick to recommend the museum dedicated to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by the town’s most famous resident, to outsiders like Stevenson. It’s a bitingly ironic if, once again, unsubtle dig, reminding us that in the American south, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.