Sometimes good intentions are all it takes to get a mediocre movie past the finish line. Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of Just Mercy, has plenty of them. In his fourth narrative feature (also his last before he delves into the superhero world with Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), he tells the story of Bryan Stevenson: a Harvard graduate court lawyer who moves to the deep south to set up the Equal Justice Initiative: an organisation that exists to help get falsely accused and innocent people of colour exonerated of the crimes they didn’t commit.
Just Mercy focuses on one case in particular: that of Walter McMillian, an African American pulp worker from Monroeville, Alabama (of To Kill A Mockingbird fame) who becomes the prime suspect in the murder of an 18-year-old white girl – despite there being no reliable witnesses to the crime. Nevertheless, the racist elites running the town manage to sentence him to life in prison, and later death row. Jamie Foxx is enlisted to play McMillian, and does a brilliant job of conveying the man’s cynical front dropping as his taste of freedom grows ever closer.
Opposite him, playing Bryan Stevenson, is Black Panther‘s Michael B. Jordan. Despite being one of the most accomplished young actors working in Hollywood today – and perfectly suited to a role like this – his performance falls victim to the film’s placid script. It gives him nothing beyond the brief of ‘man who practises law’ to work with: no backstory or motivation – just a job to do.
It doesn’t help that Cretton’s film comes barely a year after Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, a soft-souled and enriching film that conveys how racial profiling and the prison system tears apart a young couple, just as the flames of their love story start to flicker. In some senses, the two are loose bedfellows, but while Jenkins got to the heart of what it means to be black, persecuted and a complex human being in 20th century America, Just Mercy is far more prosaic. Perhaps neither Cretton or his screenwriter Andrew Lanham can turn to personal experience to bring this story to life – the crux of what makes many of its competitors so strong. Films such as this need to take risks to reap rewards; neither party is qualified, nor comfortable enough, to do that.
Maybe without the external pressure to deliver an awards-friendly biopic, teeming with emotional signposting and laboriously cinematic scenes of jailhouse brotherhood, Just Mercy could have wound up losing a little of its distracting gloss and been better off for it. Instead, what we’re given is a neatly packaged and important story, competently told. Much like last year’s Oscar Best Picture winner Green Book, which played out like a film about race directed by Home Alone helmer Chris Columbus.
A film like Just Mercy should either infuriate you or leave you distraught, either way setting you on a course to think about something differently. Instead, what’s left is a fine, crowd-pleasing piece of cinema made from masterpiece-worthy source material. It’s capable of being far greater than this.
Just Mercy premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It will be released in the UK in early 2020.