Destin Daniel Cretton will soon join the ranks of indie directors who have made the leap to superhero moviemaking with Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, due out in 2021. Just Mercy, however, is all about real life heroism. Based on the true story of American lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson’s work to help innocent death row inmates and the founding of his Equal Justice Initiative organisation, the powerful performances are just about enough to counterbalance the clichés of a familiar, if urgent story.
The innocent man at the heart of Just Mercy is Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx) – arrested for the murder of a White woman despite there being ample evidence to the contrary, he’s facing death via electric chair when the idealistic Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Alabama, determined to help.
Most legal dramas focus on the protagonist working tirelessly to find the necessary evidence to win the day, but in Just Mercy the struggle is against the systemic racism of the US judicial system that’s engineered to put Black people like McMillian behind bars under the pretence of law enforcement. Cretton deserves credit for not shying away from showing just how rife the corruption is, with Stevenson being subjected to bigotry at practically every turn. That said there are very few risks taken with the storytelling, and the film’s procedural structure hits all the beats you might expect.
Thankfully, the performances elevate the film beyond its limiting conventions. Jordan has long excelled at portraying intense emotions with restraint, and as the initially naïve Stevenson comes to terms with the situation he finds himself in, the Black Panther star continually finds new layers of nuance. For the most part, Foxx’s McMillian – who remains understandably cautious with his hopefulness throughout – is similarly reserved, but the performance is all the more powerful for it and deserving of all the awards consideration it has received.
The third part of the impressive acting trifecta belongs to Rob Morgan. Playing Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam War veteran struggling with PTSD while facing the death penalty, his is a heartbreaking turn from an underrated actor at the top of his game. It’s in these quiet, intimate moments that the film is at its most complex and three-dimensional as opposed to broad and routine. It’s a shame that more of these moments weren’t gifted to Brie Larson, who’s not given enough to do as Stevenson’s co-worker Eva Ansley.
Still, there’s something to be said for a film that spotlights how much work needs to be done to fix a broken system. Even though Stevenson and McMillian’s battle took place in the 1980s, it feels timely and relevant. Just Mercy is a story worth telling and, thanks to the emotionally stirring performances, worth watching too.
- Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
- Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx
- Release date: 17 January 2020