When defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) first meets Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), wrongfully convicted for capital murder, a wave of skepticism hits the room. After lamenting about the lawyers that have came and went in his life with no real solution, McMillian leans in, looks Stevenson directly in his eye and asks “what you gonna go different?”Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Just Mercy explores that difference between other lawyers in Alabama and Stevenson’s decades-long commitment to justice and fighting Death Row laws. And where the film lacks in unpredictability, it gains in passionate performances.
We begin Stevenson’s journey in 1989, fresh faced with a new Harvard law degree. He has a zeal for seeking justice and overturning sentences after interning at the Southern Center for Human Rights as a student. He develops the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama, an organization dedicated to fighting for prisoner’s rights. With help from Alabama local Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he takes on cases of death row inmates.
Based on the book written by Stevenson, Just Mercy doesn’t shy from how shoddy the criminal justice system can be. Through McMillian’s case, Stevenson (as well as the audience) uncovers a growing number of corners that were cut in his trial. Spurred by desperation to give this small town peace, the law was not followed to the letter. And add the glaring layers of racial profiling and police brutality in Monroe County, the case against McMillian was faulty from the start.
What’s pleasantly surprising is how far the film chooses to go to show the horrors of this system. In one disturbing scene, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) is going through the process of his execution after EJI’s motion to extend his date was denied. We follow Richardson from shaving to prayer to being strapped in the chair. The camera lingers on Richardson’s face and body to the point of discomfort, in a voyeuristic way. It’s a raw scene for a film whose marketing felt like it was positioned for a feel-good social justice film for the holiday season. But one that’s necessary and grounds the film.
Surprising direction choices aside, the film is conventional in all the ways that’s hard to ignore. It fits squarely in the legal drama genre, and at times has difficulty in breaking from the mold. While it teeters on being stale, standout performances prevent it from fully going over that line.
While his screen-time is limited, Rob Morgan is captivating as Richardson. His slow cadence and expressive eyes works overtime here, and deliver some of the most emotionally wrenching moments.
But it’s Jamie Foxx who runs away with the show. As McMillian, Foxx received the best dialogue and delivers it with aplomb. The strongest moments in the film happen when Stevenson and McMillian are deep in their attorney/client discussions. Armed with a few monologues, Foxx strips down and demands attention – and you have no choice but to listen.