A story that is sadly all too common, a crime is committed, a corrupt, racist and desperate police force need a criminal, and so a black person is arrested, falsely charged and thrown in prison to be forgotten.
This was the real-life case for Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who found himself on death row facing a false murder charge built on a case comprising of planted evidence, racist assumptions and questionable witnesses. However, on his side is renowned civil rights defence lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) who, despite threats from the state of Alabama itself, works to free Walter and prove his innocence.
The shining light of Just Mercy is the screenplay. From emotion-fuelled courtroom debates to lines that will fill any viewer with anger and heartbreak, the writing takes the audience on a journey where we come to know every character on an emotional level which complete our view into the time. This ranges from Bryan’s assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) who’s determined to set the right example for her child, to Ralph Meyers (Tim Blake Nelson) an untrustworthy witness who’s past needs to be seen to be believed. Yet, whilst every actor and actress is worthy of praise, Jamie Foxx as Walter, is the stand out. Any step forward or back is brutally expressed in his performance, creating a genuinely empathetic human being who the audience whole heartedly supports. Paired with Michael B Jordan as the forever sympathetic lawyer Bryan, together they bring to life some of the most heart breaking and uplifting scenes to grace the past year of cinema.
Another asset the film expertly capitalises on is the use of its’ setting, the town of Monroeville, Alabama. Although not appearing in the credits, the town represents a character in of itself. However, being comprised of residents from all backgrounds, this is a character that can warrant sympathy in one scene and sheer disgust in the next. Also the setting of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, a fact many residents take pride in but fail to appreciate the hypocrisy of, the town reveals its own deep-seated racism with acts ranging from bomb threats to passive occupation of seats in a court gallery. These components all combine to create a film that is, on the one hand, an uplifting and inspirational tour de force of human decency, yet on the other, a harsh reflection of people and times that continue to leach into the present day.
However, this incredible story is limited by less than stellar directing from Destin Daniel Cretton whose commitment to a slow pace combined with a 2 and a quarter hour run time, mean sections of the film can drag. This, paired with a score that never strays into a territory approaching ‘quick-paced’, means scenes that could have benefitted from an increased sense of desperation and tension do not reach their full potential. Whilst these issues do weaken the film, it’s messages about hope, belief and kindness will remain as strong, relevant and important in the future as they do today.
My main regret with Just Mercy, is that the story of Bryan Stevenson should not have been restricted to just one film. As I discovered everything Bryan has done and continues to do, it firmly planted my belief that he should have had his own film series. However, whilst that may not happen, the fact ‘Just Mercy’ exists to tell his story, may be the victory Bryan didn’t know would happen.