Just Mercy Review

Just Mercy is a hard film to criticize, not because it’s great, but because the actual cause it represents is. Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is based on the 2015 memoir of the same name by Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) founder and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson. The book covers Stevenson’s experiences starting EJI, a legal nonprofit that provides representation to inmates who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in state jails and prisons. EJI also works to fight mass incarceration and the death penalty, and provides re-entry assistance to incarcerated people.

EJI does valuable work in the sphere of mass incarceration activism and racial justice, and anything that can bring more positive mainstream attention and support to that work counts as good outreach. However, as art, Just Mercy ends up being a fairly bland crowd pleaser that doesn’t pick up the momentum it should until the final act.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Stevenson, a law student at Harvard who, after a transformative experience interning with a public defender’s office in college, moves to Montgomery, Alabama in 1989 to start the Equal Justice Initiative and work with inmates on death row. Through this work, he meets Walter “Johnnie D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man wrongfully convicted of the murder of a teenage girl in Monroe County a couple of years earlier. Stevenson takes McMillian on as one of his first clients, going through the process of convincing McMillian and his family to trust him, then working to prove McMillian’s innocence, encountering obstacle after obstacle from a corrupt, racist local justice system.

Foxx gives a powerful performance as McMillian, as does Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers, whose coerced false testimony put McMillian behind bars. Rob Morgan does breakout work as Herbert Richardson, another death row inmate represented by Stevenson. Brie Larson also gives solid support as EJI’s first employee, Eva Ansley. But as Stevenson, Jordan’s performance is left wanting. He often feels like a blank slate, and appears to be going through the motions of the plot, until some dramatic turns at the end of the second act finally break through that wall of composure.

This is largely because Just Mercy is more interested in those mapping out the details of McMillian’s case and Stevenson’s appeal than it is in sharing the emotional journey of its lead. There are several scenes that consist solely of Jordan and Larson sitting together at a dining room table poring over files and discussing case details and next steps with each other. This is done simply for the benefit of conveying exposition, much of it unnecessary, rather than letting the audience get to know the characters.

The stakes rise significantly later in the film, which finally brings some anger, sadness and fear to the surface, and forces Jordan’s Stevenson to address those emotions. It also brings some additional energy to Foxx’s McMillian, who gives Walter a great arc as he goes from hopeless to hopeful, only to have the resilience of that newfound hope challenged. As Walter’s court date nears, Just Mercy becomes the dynamic drama it should have been the whole time. The visuals also go from unremarkable to more focused portraits of the characters representing the defendant and the prosecution, showing the emotional toll this experience has taken on them. These changes help make up for lost potential, and creates a suitably moving climax and resolution, but it’s almost too little too late.

The conflict about Just Mercy as valuable cinematic art is that while the film itself is pedestrian, the real-life figure and the organization he started are anything but. It’s hard to fault a movie that’s so dedicated to bringing attention to an important story, even if its storytelling doesn’t make much of an impression. There’s been buzz around Toronto that Just Mercy is being positioned as the successor to Green Book, and while for a lot of film lovers that’s not exactly great praise, Cretton’s film is absolutely less problematic and more worthy of awards attention than this year’s Best Picture winner. If Just Mercy does indeed garner the same level of mainstream praise, it could potentially result in some actual good.

While Just Mercy likely won’t make much of a splash beyond this year’s fall film season, and ends up being a fairly shallow portrayal of a real-life individual whose public persona is anything but that, it’s heart is still in the right place. If nothing else, its potential success (which it will have, based on audience reactions at Toronto and Warner Bros. giving it an awards-friendly December release) could bring a lot of mainstream attention to an organization that’s still actively improving our world. On that score, Just Mercy manages to achieve one of the medium’s loftier goals: actual social change.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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About the Author

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic, proud Midwesterner and pie enthusiast. Find her on twitter at @indieabby88.