Review: Just Mercy — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Like the real-life hero at its center, Just Mercy sees what is happening in America’s legal system and asks the question: “How can you not take this personally?”

Scene from the film, Just Mercy
(Courtesy Warner Bros)

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Just Mercy

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson

Writers: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham, based on Bryan Stevenson’s book

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton


Not all good-for-you movies are actually all that good. Just Mercy, populated by monumental performances and powered by a story of uncommon courage, is by every measure a great film.

For more than 30 years, civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has been toiling to rescue wrongly accused or unfairly sentenced death row inmates — the overwhelming majority of them African American — from execution. Just Mercy the book covers decades of outrageous and tragic cases nationwide, but Just Mercy the movie focuses on Stevenson’s earliest: Three men facing the electric chair in Alabama during the 1980s.

As Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Black Panther) bristles with indignant compassion. More importantly, his performance traces the young lawyer’s exodus from an idealistic neophyte who sees himself as the principled outsider/savior of these men to a profoundly changed, intimate participant in their personal tragedies. Jamie Foxx plays an innocent man wrongly placed on Louisiana’s Death Row, and here he reclaims his place as one of the screen’s most thoughtful actors. Hollow-eyed, physically and emotionally depleted, Foxx brings harrowing immediacy to the role of a man who has relinquished all hope of escaping his date with the chair — and who at first views Stevenson with justified skepticism.

The richness of Just Mercy’s tapestry is enhanced by some wonderfully defined supporting performances. Rob Morgan is heartbreaking as Herb, a PTSD-afflicted client who mournfully admits he did, indeed, plant the bomb that has landed him on Death Row. His final scenes, as a man torn between accepting his punishment and rejecting the inhumanity of the process that brought him to this moment, bring stark reality to the awful finality of the death penalty. O’Shea Jackson Jr. brings unexpected warmth to the role of Anthony, another client whose assigned punishment far outstrips his offense — the victim of a culture that considers black lives dispensable in the service of making a point. As Stevenson’s assistant, Brie Larson (Room) serves as our stand-in, sharing our growing exasperation as the racist underpinnings of the justice system throw one roadblock after another in her boss’s path. And Tim Blake Nelson — most memorable as one of George Clooney’s fellow escapees in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? — turns the thankless role of Ralph Myers, a semi-repentant jailhouse snitch, into a thing of wonder. Squirming in the witness chair, all twitches and grumbles, Nelson’s backwoods bigot drags himself, kicking and screaming, to defying the institutional racism that has until this moment defined his life.

Likewise, a word must be said for the essential, if minor, character of a prison guard played by Hayes Mercure. We barely notice the guy at first — he’s just another white-faced keeper in a human warehouse — but with marvelous subtlety and measured authenticity, Mercure’s guard grows to understand that these men are far more human than the mere animals he’s been trained to see. His shift toward the light is, admittedly, little more than an emergence from the darkest of shadows, but with few lines and just a little screen time, Mercure provides us with a spark of hope; the possibility that people can change.

Movies like Just Mercy inevitably find themselves tagged as “Oscar Bait,” a derogatory term in an industry that too often casts a cynical eye on big-name dramas that explore social injustice through closely observed personal stories. But that attitude does Just Mercy a criminal injustice: co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) never goes for cheap sentiment. His characters face difficult choices, and don’t always make the right ones. Like the real-life hero at its center, Just Mercy sees what is happening in America’s legal system and asks the question: “How can you not take this personally?”

Featured image: Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian in Warner Bros. Pictures drama, Just Mercy, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Copyright: © 2019 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. Photo Credit: Jake Giles Netter

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