4 out of 5
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 in Alabama to investigate and provide legal advice to convicts, most of whom were on death row. This new film from writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton is based on Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption which tells the story of Walter McMillian.
Hawaiian-born director Destin Daniel Cretton has a knack for taking beloved books and turning them into good films. He directed the 2017 film adaptation of The Glass Castle (which also starred Brie Larson) which I loved. For Just Mercy, he remain very faithful to the source material.
The film tells the story of Walter McMillian, known to his friends and family as Johnny D. Johnny is wrongfully accused of murder, convicted and sentenced to be executed. The film opens with some necessary exposition as we learn the back-story of lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan). We see his plan to travel to Alabama to help convicts in their search for justice together with a prescient warning from his mother to be careful. Stevenson works on behalf of several death row inmates, among them Johnny D (Jamie Foxx). Along the way he hires a campaigning assistant (played by Brie Larson) and together they set up the Equal Justice Initiative. (The DC fan-girl in me mentally renamed it to the Equal Justice League!).
We have seen films with similar subject matter before, however Just Mercy is different. It never preaches. It allows the humanity of the story to lead. There is a wonderful sequence early on where Stevenson visits the home of Johnny D to meet his wife and family. A "few" of the neighbours have also dropped by to hear what this new lawyer has to say and contribute their stories. It's a delightful, warm, human scene where Jordan, as the lead, plays support to this wonderful ensemble.
As with these stories, as in real-life, there are setbacks as Stevenson works on behalf of the inmates. Yes there are scenes of him late at night going through court documents. Yes, he's found asleep at the kitchen table. Yes there are tense sequences where he is harassed by local police. Those tropes are present but what took my breath away, for the first of many times, was his failure to save one inmate and we witness his electrocution and the trauma inflicted on Stevenson as a result. It echoed scenes from Frank Darabont's The Green Mile . It was filmed with real empathy and in the screening I attended, resulted in copious amounts of tears and sniffles in the dark.
There are courtroom scenes and who doesn't love a good courtroom drama. I sometimes think film loves the theatre of a courtroom. These are all well executed and tension is created appropriately.
Michael B Jordan is well cast as Stevenson. He brings a stoicism, a naivety a self-belief together with a wonderful screen presence. His roles to date have demanded a physicality: Creed, Black Panther, etc but here we get to see him act and he delivers. Jamie Foxx does what he does well and does not disappoint. Brie Larson's role is supporting the leads and she does it in a subtle way, not taking from their scenes and yet making her presence felt - it's wonderful. There's a special mention for Tim Blake Nelson who plays Ralph Myers. Nelson is a wonderful character actor and he shines here. I loved him in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. He is an actor's actor.
In a time where we see the rise of fascism and racism in society, Just Mercy is a timely and well-executed reminder that we are all human and we all deserve justice and mercy.
Go see it and bring tissues.