Just Mercy tells the story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young lawyer straight out of Harvard, who has opened a new organization in Alabama to provide legal assistance to death row inmates. Based on Stevenson’s book of the same title, it details his time providing assistance to one particular inmate, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Convicted of killing a white woman, McMillian has lost all hope in proving his innocence. Stevenson works tirelessly to fight the system and bring the truth to light.
Let me just start by saying that this is an absolutely heartbreaking film in a lot of different ways. Unfortunately, it highlights the very real problem that exists in our justice system. We would like to believe that our justice system functions in a fair and unbiased way. That could not be further from the truth though and this is just one example of the true injustice done to African Americans caught up in the justice system. This film does a brilliant job of allowing the audience to feel the anxiety and fear that racism causes. There are a couple of scenes in particular where the intimidation that Stevenson faces will downright scare you, mostly because you realize that this is a reality for far too many people.
The performances in this film are awards worthy and I don’t understand why there hasn’t been much buzz for them. It probably has to do with the late release date, but it is still hard to ignore what Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, and Brie Larson do in this film. At the end, we see photos of the actual people they portray and the casting of these roles was spot on. It is rare that the casting of this many noteworthy actors results in everyone not only looking like the people they portray, but also turning in top notch performances. It also didn’t hurt that they had a very good adapted script to work with. Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham created a screenplay that is both compelling and natural in its dialogue. At times it really felt like you were in a room listening in on these conversations.
While this film does focus on McMillian’s case, there are a few different subplots that really help to bolster the narrative. One in particular focuses on Herb (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam vet with severe PTSD that is on death row for killing a woman. While he admits to the crime, it is very clear that his mental state played a role in what he did. Stevenson spends a great deal of time trying to get a stay of execution for him. We watch Herb and Walter’s relationship develop through the walls of their cells. It really shows the trauma of the prison system and there is one scene in particular that I am going to remain coy about that is absolutely crushing and serves as a turning point for Stevenson’s character. It is really interesting how Cretton and Lanham tell the stories of so many of the death row inmates without the narrative becoming unfocused.
I have a lot more to say about this film. However, as a person with the privilege I have, I would rather allow the film to speak for itself. Please go see this film. Tell your friends about it. Encourage everyone you know to see this it and then spend some time afterwards sitting with their feelings. And never forget the injustice that is happening around us every day.
This movie exceeded my expectations. I went in thinking it would be very formulaic but feature some standout performances. While the structure is indeed somewhat familiar, it is a procedural after all, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and co-screenwriter Andrew Lamham let the plot unfold slowly, filling the story with a lot of exposition and additional characters that are actually welcome.
While the primary arc is about Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to overturn Walter McMillan’s conviction, there are subplots involving other inmates and wrongly convicted individuals. Their stories are essential to building upon exposing the flaws in the criminal justice system revealed by McMillan’s case. Much like Schindler’s List earned its hopeful ending by making sure we were frequently reminded of those who didn’t survive the Holocaust, Just Mercy reminds us that not every wrongfully convicted person finds justice.
The film’s deliberate, slow and thoughtful pace also allows it to simultaneously examine how racial and economic inequality are tied together. A lot of films do a solid job exploring one side of the issue or another, but Just Mercy is one of the rare narratives that succeed at exploring both and being wise enough to understand how they are related.
The performances are amazing. I think Warner Bros. really screwed up the timing of this film’s release. Had this come out in November, I think it would have attracted a lot more awards buzz. What little traction it has picked up on that front has resulted in a very deserving Screen Actors Guild nomination for Jamie Foxx in the supporting actor category, and I doubt I’ll be alone in rooting for him to win next weekend. That said, Just Mercy also features great acting from Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan. Their characters’ stories will stick with you. I’m still angry and will remain so about what they went through, and that’s the point.
In terms of flaws, I would say the main one I noticed is that the first 10-15 minutes feel a bit choppy. I know there’s a lot of exposition to deal with, but the first few scenes really bounce back and forth and try to condense a two year period into a few scenes. Some of these moments are necessary for character or plot, but the impact isn’t quite there the way it is the rest of the run time.
I just want to point out a couple other random things I noticed. The events Just Mercy is based on occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While the production design here isn’t as impressive or showy as it is in a film like Once Upon A Time…Hollywood, I was impressed with everything from the interior settings to the cars. Every exterior and street shot of this film gets cars just right. It’s a little thing considering the focal point of the story, but it’s amazing how often I come across movies where the production designer didn’t take the time to get the cars right or assumed the audience wouldn’t care. It’s a huge part of immersing an audience in the time period though, and the vehicles present here look like the ones on the road back in 1992 and 1993. Some films seem to be populated with vehicles only from the year they are depicting. Just Mercy avoids that mistake, and conveys a lot about the economic status of characters through the vehicles they drive, and thus there is a more realistic mixture of cars from the early 90s and older vehicles that are from the late 70s and early 80s.
Another interesting choice was made in terms of the film’s soundtrack. Most of the popular music utilized is from 1993 or earlier. But there is an early anachronistic inclusion of Alabama Shakes’ 2015 hit “Don’t Wanna Fight.” It plays over a montage of Stevenson driving to Alabama. Aside from the name of Stevenson’s destination being part of the southern rock group’s title, the inclusion of the track seems like a subtle way of tying the events of nearly three decades ago to the present. “Don’t Wanna Fight” was also released around the time that Stevenson’s book, upon which the film is based, was sitting at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t want to spoil it in case you are unfamiliar with the story, but there is also a key development we learn about at the end of the film involving one of the other prisoners who was on death row with McMillan. That development occurred in 2015 as well. The inclusion of “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a small detail, but one of many that cumulatively remind the viewer that this is an issue very relevant to right now.
I spoke earlier about what impact Warner Bros. release schedule for this film may have had on its awards chances, but far more important than awards is that this film be seen by as many people as possible. Judging by the A+ Cinemascore audiences have given it and the nearly full auditorium we saw the it in yesterday, I hope Just Mercy continues to gain steam at the box office and find a huge audience in theaters, on disc and on streaming platforms. This is not a movie that should be missed by anyone.