“There’s always something that we can do.”
After reading social justice warrior Bryan Stevenson’s account defending the wrongly accused in his book of the same name, I have to say that Just Mercy works better – and has a more visceral, emotional impact – adapted as a film. Stevenson’s best-seller doesn’t pull punches, but it’s more of a memory than it is a rumination on the present or the prospects of the future. The book is a first-hand procedural written by a lawyer, and it’s noticeably lacking the descriptors that a seasoned author might use to make the pages come alive. And that’s why I’m so happy with final outcome of Just Mercy. Despite minor pacing issues and a few clunky scees, the film manages to elevate what Stevenson penned back in 2015, and it’s the rare crowd-pleaser with a righteous moral compass.
Starting in Alabama’s Monroe County circa 1987, Just Mercy introduces us to Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx, robbed by the Academy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination). He has his own business felling trees, and one day on the job he looks to the open sky with a thick and bushy handlebar mustache beneath his nose. It’s as if the universe is telling him to soak up this moment of freedom. That’s because on his drive home, Walter comes up against a squadron of police cars blocking the road. He’s accused of the heinous killing of a white woman, put on death row without trial for the murder of a person he never met in a place he’d never been. None of that matters to the townspeople, though. To them, Walter looks like the kind of man who’d do such a thing. He’s presumed guilty.
That’s where Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan, so reminiscent of a young Sidney Poitier) stoically walks into the picture some 2 years later. A recent Harvard grad, Stevenson relocates from Delaware to the Heart of Dixie, determined to do what’s right in a place where life sentences are dolled out by a justice system with little to no moral conviction. He’s a man of color, working to free the mass incarcerated who look just like him, and it’s always apparent that Stevenson pictures himself in their shoes. Should he have been born under different circumstances, statistics show that his neutral colored business suit could just as easily be switched out for the white jumpsuits worn by those on death row. Bryan looks over the case, sees Walter’s obvious innocence, and convinces a man spurned by society to let him fight the good fight. Not only is he in the corner of the ring, he’s in the arena absorbing as many jabs as he throws. Stevenson means what he says and says what he means.
This is pro bono work full of long hours and late nights, neither of which bother Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), operations director for Bryan’s newly established Equal Justice Initiative. They simply pursue the truth, hoping that their efforts will set people free. Some battles are lost – this is the South after all. The system isn’t completely rigged but the deck has definitely been stacked in favor of local law enforcement, and the excellent ensemble here helps to show how the cards you’re dealt behind bars inevitably alters the hand that those who’re trying to help are able to play. Walter’s big family admit his flaws but champion his character. One young man with an alibi is pressured into silence. Other death row inmates on the block have their fates scripted for them: PTSD sufferer Herbert Richardson (stunningly portrayed by Rob Morgan) awaits the electric chair, having admitted to a disturbing crime years after returning from the war, and Ray (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) questions if Stevenson can walk the talk. There’s also the serpentine Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), coerced into falsely accusing Walter. The effective drama from either side of the prison bars is distinct, and the halves become whole in the studied, litigious courtroom scenes.
I can’t quite bring myself to say that Just Mercy is one of 2019’s best films; some spots simply lay the sentiment on too thick. But I know that this picture has one of the year’s best ensembles, all of whom help the film to cohesively develop as Stevenson pours over and builds Walter’s case. And I know that this is the kind of picture our deeply divided country desperately needs to rally behind, not only due to its resonant message, but more so because of the power and licensing that it gives back to the typically disenfranchised. Much is made of the location’s connection to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published back in 1960 and since then considered a seminal read for all. And much like the great, inflammatory civil rights ’88 drama Mississippi Burning, director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy honors Lee’s legacy with a timestamp that’s still visible in the side mirror. And one which, more often than not, is closer than it actually appears. This is one of the few films that needs to be seen by all.
“You can’t go through something like that and come out the same.”
Rating: 4 out of 5