“Just Mercy,” set in the deep South portrays Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Black and newly graduated Harvard lawyer who fights for the civil rights of innocent men on death row and the injustices of racism. The focal point of the story is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man placed on death row before his trial.
With inconsistent testimonies and seemingly ridiculous facts that would obviously release him, Stevenson finds that corruption and prejudices far outweigh common sense and decency. “Just Mercy” is a gripping and oftentimes chillingly, eye opening thriller with sublime performances regarding the legal and penal systems.
The film is based upon attorney Stevenson’s book of the same name which delves deeply into many men’s death row stories. While the film doesn’t have the time to explore each and every character, it does an extraordinary job of finding the right ones to tell and to give the viewer the emotional glimpse into several men’s lives, primarily McMillian’s.
Rarely does a film live up to a book, but in this case, co-writers Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton, who also directs the film, hit the right note in each and every scene.
We meet Stevenson as a new lawyer, wet behind the ears, attempting to pave a new path for justice. He starts the Equal Justice Initiative, much to the chagrin of the racially-biased Georgian residents. Stevenson, raised in a place where he didn’t experience the types of blatant and abusive racism with which his clients were well-versed, demonstrates a keen connection with others, allowing him to better understand the situation and intellectually respond appropriately.
It is this refined and controlled aspect of his personality that allows him to succeed.
McMillian and his case forever changes Stevenson’s perception of the legal system, as we witness his underlying frustration. However, he never allows it to influence his reactions, understanding the greater good comes from doing so. (If we could all be so controlled, the world would be a peaceful place.)
The years go by, and the evidence seems overwhelming regarding McMillian’s innocence, but there is much more to the story that initially meets the eye. Political corruption at the core, we find that not only is the area steeped in racism, but also class discrimination.
Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), a victim in his own right, creates McMillian’s nightmare, but his reasons, while not valid, they are comprehensible.
The story itself is riveting, but it’s the characters that bring the story about the death penalty to life. Foxx gives us a performance that is both authentic and true, allowing all of us, no matter our race or gender, to walk with his character and better understand McMillian’s life and situation.
Initially guarded, and understandably so, Foxx portrays McMillian as a hopeless yet still kind man, showing compassion for his fellow inmates — a rock upon which they all lean. We also learn about Anthony Ray Hinton’s (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) background and Herbert Richardson’s (Rob Morgan) horrific day of execution, a performance that takes your breath away, breaks your heart, and allows you to see what it means to be on death row.
Bringing these ancillary stories to the forefront punctuates the deeper meaning behind the main story and McMillian’s intrinsic strength, his mindset and his resiliency.
Jordan’s quiet, reserved performance is unexpected, yet reportedly quite true to the real life Stevenson. The passion and anger of sometimes uncontrollable situations are just beneath the surface, and we not only recognize these emotions, we feel them ourselves. It’s a disquieting performance that matches the strength of Foxx and together, like many films this year, it is their relationship that pulls you into the story.
“Just Mercy” pays balanced attention to McMillian’s family, all who find their own personalities to relay. From anger and fear to hope and even happiness, we get a sense of family and loyalty amidst the never-ending injustices.
McMillian’s wife isn’t a typical “stand by your man” kind of woman, either. She’s real. Their history is a complicated one, and Karan Kendrick finds that complexity and hones in on the characteristics that make Minnie a genuine and realistically layered person.
Nelson, while his screen time isn’t great, creates his character of Ralph with deft skill. It’s a pivotal role in the story as “Ralph’s” testimony is the key to the entire case.
Initially, we loathe this man, but again, the depth with which the character is developed, we realize he, too, is a victim of not only the system but of the prejudices of the area and people. He’s scarred on the inside and the outside, and Blake transforms himself into this scared man filled with regrets.
“Just Mercy” brings a timely and socially relevant tale to light, letting us inside the walls and the cells of humanity, as it compels us to have compassion and humanity for all. It’s a well-balanced story that begs us to find a connection with others and to be kind … a lesson we can all use on a daily basis.
A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.