Just Mercy: A Straightforward Tale of Uncommon Humanity
Following the real-life criminal defense attorney and civil rights icon Bryan Stevenson in his early career defending death row inmates in Alabama, Just Mercy is a straightforward tale of right and wrong, and the hard work that it takes to ensure that “equal justice for all” is more than just a platitude. By that measure, it’s inspiring, but that moral clarity unfortunately saps the movie of much of its narrative tension. Still, even as the movie hits mostly familiar beats, Just Mercy succeeds by imbuing its characters with uncommon humanity. On its face, Just Mercy is a fairly standard courtroom drama, but it’s elevated by two things: its authenticity and the strength of its cast. In a recent interview with The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton explained his (and Bryan Stevenson’s) desire to make a legal drama that wouldn’t cause lawyers in the audience to roll their eyes. As a civil rights lawyer myself, I can confirm that he mostly succeeds. Just Mercy accurately portrays many of the aspects of civil rights legal advocacy that aren’t typically shown on screen, like witness interviews, building trust and relationships with clients and their families, and reviewing old evidence—which are often just as, if not more important to victory than fiery courtroom speeches. In that sense, Just Mercy makes an interesting companion to Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters, which also concerns itself with the minutiae of civil litigation (there, document review and years of slow-moving appeals) to great emotional effect. That those legal proceedings are at all compelling is largely thanks to Just Mercy’s stellar cast. After proving his movie star bonafides in everything from indie dramas like Fruitvale Station to blockbusters like Creed, Michael B. Jordan takes on the role of Stevenson, which is surprisingly perhaps his most challenging yet. On the surface, it might not appear that way--he’s certainly not going through boxing training or working with complicated visual effects and stunts--but Just Mercy requires Jordan to play characteristics like decency, sympathy, and determination in ways that are not particularly showy. In fact, Jordan’s performance here reminded me of his Black Panther co-star Chadwick Boseman’s performance as T’Challa. Here, Jordan similarly has to anchor his film with quiet nobility, steadily driving the action forward while providing a steady springboard for more colorful supporting characters to bounce from. His quiet focus and empathy mirror both Stevenson’s approach to his practice of law and Cretton’s filmmaking style. In his work, Stevenson takes great care to center the people in their own narratives, emphasizing the essential humanity of his clients; it’s a perfect match for Cretton’s focus on his characters, which, like in his deeply moving debut Short Term 12, makes every person in Just Mercy feel real. They are brought to life by a stellar cast of supporting actors, chief among them Jamie Foxx as Stevenson’s client Walter MacMillan, an innocent man condemned to death. Foxx’s past decade of work has been largely underwhelming, so much so that it would be easy to forget what an electric performer he can be with good material. He fully commits to this role, allowing the audience to invest in Walter MacMillan as a person. MacMillan’s wife (Karan Kendrick), family, and fellow inmates (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, and a marvelous Rob Morgan) are all elevated beyond mere stereotypes. The only outlier, unfortunately, is Brie Larson’s Eva Ansley, who isn’t given quite enough to do besides provide Stevenson with steadfast support (but presumably her participation helped get this movie financed, so that alone is enough to justify the presence of a star of her caliber in what is otherwise a thankless role). Just Mercy isn’t breaking any new ground cinematically, but Bryan Stevenson’s work certainly is. Because of that, Just Mercy retains a significant degree of emotional power as an inspiring story about a remarkable man fighting one of the greatest moral injustices of our time.