In what is an astoundingly poignant outing from Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, Just Mercy is an emotionally down-to-earth legal crime drama telling the story of civil rights defence attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his struggle to free a wrongly convicted prisoner on death row. The film is adapted from Stevenson’s 2014 memoir “A Story of Justice and Redemption” and, as with the book, profiles its reflections on poverty, injustice, and institutional racism around Stevenson’s experience as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan’s (Jamie Foxx) lawyer.
The justiciary in Monroe County, Alabama, prejudicially upholds Johnny D.’s conviction for the murder of a white teenage girl from the local community, Ronda Morrison, in the late 1980s. By the time Michael B. Jordan’s tenacious defence attorney arrives on the screen, Johnny D. is already a broken man with little faith left in lawyers and is essentially waiting for his sentence to be carried out. The film is quick to uncover the evidence pointing to Johnny D.’s innocence, yet its gradual pacing and contemplative tone allows room for some compelling reflections on modern America, a society still plagued by its history of slavery and corresponding deep-seated racist rhetoric.
The principal theatrical poster for Just Mercy tries to make it plain that it boasts some Oscar-worthy performances which, given that the film was overlooked completely in this year’s awards season, is possibly a welcome additional layer of critique aimed at the Academy specifically in light of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign of recent years. Jordan is fantastic, but Foxx delivers one of his best performances in years, subtle and understated as the wrongfully accused prisoner. There is a ferocious anger to him too which festers beneath the surface, allowing his character to act as a personification of the frustration felt towards this case. Foxx remains a collected, calm presence throughout the film which has the potential to explode at any point, making for a balanced yet provocative narrative progression.
Where Just Mercy falters, however, is in the use of its secondary characters. While this most definitely isn’t Brie Larson’s story, nor should it be, her crucial role as Stevenson’s colleague Eva Ansley is diminished and forgettable despite attempts to integrate her into the story to little effect. Rob Morgan’s superb rendition of Herbert Richardson, the prisoner in Johnny D.’s neighbouring cell, provides the most moving secondary character storyline, but by stretching the film slightly too much, Cretton stumbles in his effort to ignite an electrifying atmosphere to this hard-hitting drama and loses some of its intricacy along the way.
Yet for the significant most part, Just Mercy is a vital story of injustice which heartrendingly evokes its concentrated theme of entrenched racial discrimination in a markedly contemporary manner. Led by an astonishing double performance from Jordan and Foxx, Cretton’s film deserves more credit than it is given for its excellent musings on a broken justice system.
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