To accuse Just Mercy as being your typical and conventional courtroom drama would be completely wide-off the mark. Yes, it doesn’t escape the formula of being a t-shirt slogan – ‘been there, done that’ with scenes that will be played for an Oscar ‘For Your Consideration’ clip reel. However, that is beside the point. It doesn’t mean the story behind Just Mercy doesn’t deserve to be told. That doesn’t mean the validity is suddenly erased or its narrative ceases to be important. The heavily tried and tested formula only outstays its welcome if it hasn’t got anything new to say. Just Mercy rises above that argument by playing to its strengths – putting the truth on trial and showing how broken the US criminal justice system is.
We’ve seen these portrayals done time and time again. There’s even a casual reference to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – arguably the most famous stories depicted for the big screen. But it’s reference is just one juxtaposing contrast between the book’s (and film) message and its celebrity. In Just Mercy’s case – based on the true story of lawyer, social justice activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), where Monroeville, Alabama celebrate its association rather than absorb the lessons learned from its narrative, shows how absurdly conflicting it all is.
And whether it is Ava DuVernay’s stellar work on When They See Us and 13th, Just Mercy serves as another cog in that reflective wheel where blind eyes, corrupt quick fixes and blatant criminal wrongdoings which are rewarded and not punished have become double standards to suit whatever narrative justice wants to exploit. And as an integral part of the story, Just Mercy ensures this point is articulated within every frame, highlighting that prejudicial divide and its disproportionate targeting of ethnic minorities and the poor.
For context, this is not a straightforward biopic. It is about Stevenson and his early, idealistic trappings as a lawyer. But the film is a layered amalgamation between his personal experiences and his efforts to highlight racial inequality within the Death Row system, in particular, his fight to save Walter ‘Johnnie B’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
Director Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham’s script does plays it safe. Occasionally, it doesn’t quite ram home the brutal and unflinching intensity that’s found in DuVernay’s Netflix shows, for example. However, it taps into that same energy where you have to mentally prepare yourself for those horrific details.
Michael B. Jordan will undoubtedly get the plaudits, delivering a magnetic performance that utilises every myriad of emotions to convey personal struggle and the emotional pain of being black and fighting the criminal system. Again, it’s a different type of role for Jordan; this may be an ‘against all odds’ fight which we’ve seen him play in Creed and its sequel, but in Just Mercy, the key ingredient comes from Jordan’s determination. As Bryan Stevenson, he’s always looking for hope and dignity, even when it is absent towards him (where he is forced to a strip search in one scene just for the amusement of prison guards before meeting his clients) or to the people he’s representing. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when Jordan’s delivery is full of commitment and heart, and through all through its twists and turns, once again prove the immeasurable talent he possesses.
Brie Larson is another excellent addition to the role, playing Eva Ansley. Screentime is unfortunately limited, but whenever she’s included, she makes her scenes count showing loyalty despite the threats to her life.
But the beating heart of Just Mercy belongs to Jamie Foxx.
“You’re guilty from the moment you’re born” – that’s the chilling statement that reverbs around the film. Foxx uses those words with such a powerful yet cynical decree that sums up the sheer hopelessness of what systemic oppression does to somebody after being arrested and falsely accused of murder. Without a doubt, this is Jamie Foxx’s best performance in years, up there with Collateral and Django Unchained, often underplaying the role with a painful nuance in every facial expression that balances between the isolationism of being on Death Row and the forced acceptance knowing the system is against you. His overall transition from despair to fighter is one of those moments where you are forced to admit that if Jamie Foxx doesn’t get a Best Supporting Oscar nomination, something is very wrong with the system! He deserves it because he elevates the film in a way that compassionately understands the struggle.
Soon enough, it becomes clear that Just Mercy is not interested in the technicalities or formalities of the Death Row system. Again, that is beside the point. By putting a human face to all of its proceedings, Destin Daniel Cretton makes a poignant, psychological argument that is often ignored in the debate – the absence of justice and humanity. And in its efforts to reclaim it, it unleashes a barrage of emotional hurt with all of its devastating effects where you’re simply not prepared for the uncontrollable sobs that follow.
It works during a highly emotive execution scene where Foxx along with O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Anthony Ray Hinton add the necessary weight in showing solidarity as their friend is executed. It works in highlighting the community spirit, acknowledging their continued fight for justice which Stevenson can bear witness as a ‘voice of the people’ against the status quo. Just Mercy at its core best, remembers the personal journey, and through Jordan’s performance, he channels that spirit into the courtroom.
Just Mercy may rely on formulaic structures and predictability to illustrate its point, especially in its highly charged final third, but it is hard to walk away from this film without being moved. Cretton’s direction reminds you it is the emotional context that’s important with real-life heroes depicting a powerful message that’s loud and clear. His third feature film may not have been able to put a fresh spin on its proceedings with Jordan, Foxx and Larson doing the heavy lifting in sharing the emotional burden. But nevertheless, it doesn’t stop it from being an essential watch.
JUST MERCY screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. Released in cinemas 17th January 2020.