Sometimes it takes mercy to see true justice.
Based on a true story and adapted from the book of the same name, Just Mercy tells the story of Harvard lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan), who in the late 1980s moves to Alabama to give free legal representation to inmates on death row. Once there, he becomes involved in the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted by a majority-white jury of the murder of a young white woman and sentenced to death. As he looks further into the evidence, Stevenson is soon convinced that McMillian is innocent, but can he secure an exoneration when the whole town is hostile to the lawyer’s very presence?
Anyone who has watched Netflix’s gripping Making A Murderer docu-series will know how tense supposedly dry court proceedings can become when so much is at stake, something the court scenes in Just Mercy convey well. Viewers of that series will also be familiar with the long list of seemingly insurmountable hurdles defence lawyers are up against when trying to have a client exonerated of murder; corrupt law enforcement, biased judges, and the targeting of poor families without sufficient legal resources – Stevenson comes up against them all. But the McMillain case is further complicated by two factors the Making A Murderer case does not: racial discrimination, and the looming possibility of a date being set for an innocent man’s execution.
Moving performances from the supporting cast convey the pain and frustration of a poor, black community long ignored by the law. In the court scenes in particular, there is a strong sense that the actors are constantly aware of how relevant this decades-old story is today, at a time when poor people are still denied justice, when black Americans are routinely targeted by the police, and the death penalty still exists and is taking lives both guilty and innocent. It is largely because of the intensity and realism of these performances that gives the film a subtle, if pervasive, feeling of hopelessness that is hard to shake off. How are we supposed to believe in the justice system when those who fight for the truth are confronted with such seemingly insurmountable hurdles even when the evidence is on their side?
The film handles these important issues with the necessary weight without falling into the kind of preachiness that pulls an audience out of the story. That isn’t to say that by falling on the right side of the film/sermon divide, Just Mercy doesn’t have a lot to say. One of the most striking moments comes early in the film, when Stevenson, on his way to visit potential clients in prison, halts his car as a procession of mostly black convict labourers cross the road as a rifle-toting white guard watches them from horseback. It immediately conjures up images of chain gangs and slave overseers, encapsulating centuries of racial oppression in a matter of seconds. It is to the film’s credit that its script trusts the actors to convey its message through their deeply empathetic performances, never feeling the need to over-explain its own themes or lecture the audience.
That this trust pays off is primarily down to the brilliantly emotive performances from a stellar supporting cast. Performances are good across the board, but the stand-out is clearly Rob Morgan as army vet and death row inmate Herbert Richardson. Demonstrating Richardson’s sincere remorse for his crime, and the suffering caused by his untreated PTSD, Morgan gives a movingly human performance of someone many would consider undeserving of sympathy. The choice to include Richardson, and to portray him as an empathetic character is one that pays off in spades, allowing the film to ask deeper questions about criminal justice and the treatment of prisoners beyond the simplistic notion that his innocence is the sole reason that McMillain’s treatment is unjust.
The main disappointment of the film are the limited colours with which it paints its lead. With his admirable empathy and strong sense of justice, Stevenson is an easy protagonist to root for, but the lack of complexity with which he is written makes him seem more like a custom-built hero than a real person. This means that Jordan is never asked to play the emotional complexity that made him so compelling in Black Panther.
Though it rarely moves out of conventional biopic territory, Just Mercy remains engaging throughout on the strength of its story and the conviction of its actors. It may be frustratingly relevant, but despite being a film about a terrible injustice, Just Mercy still manages to feel ultimately hopeful that the truth will win out as long as there are those, like Bryan Stevenson, that are willing to fight for it. Lets hope it’s right.
Just Mercy opens in UK cinemas on 17th January 2020.