Despite some weaknesses, Just Mercy resonates

Destin Daniel Cretton’s depiction of a real-life legal case is touching, even if it relies on some familiar tropes.

Based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy begins in the 1980s as Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) graduates from Harvard Law school. Meanwhile, in Alabama, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. Over many troubled years, Stevenson resettles in Alabama, where he starts the Equal Justice Initiative along with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) to fight for the rights of prisoners on death row. Much of the film focuses on Stevenson’s efforts to prove that McMillian was convicted of a crime he did not commit.

Just Mercy is a quiet film. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle), the film opens as McMillian is on the job, working in the woods. He looks up at the sky to see pine woods swaying in the breeze. Moments like these are peaceful and spiritual and reflect on the freedom of having the sky above you. But not all silences are created equal. Within the prison walls where so much of the film takes place, silence feels claustrophobic rather than liberating. Silence, rather than leaving room to breathe, strangles all thought, reflection and prayer.

The sound feels essential as it reflects on Cretton’s approach to filmmaking. Just Mercy is undeniably sincere and even tender but occasionally lacks urgency. There is patience in the way Cretton allows things to unfold. On one side, you have Stevenson, who’ll take all the time he needs to achieve justice; on the other, you have McMilian and other death-row inmates who have no choice but to wait, caught in perpetual limbo. But, as much as this patience engenders a kind of meditativeness, it also works against the film’s momentum. While often serving the film’s ideas, this gentle approach also makes Just Mercy drag on occasion. 

The script draws out the many roadblocks facing the work of justice reform and the impact that slavery, Jim Crow and American imperialism have on perpetuating inequality and injustice within American society. Racism is now dressed up in politeness and concerns for safety, while elected officials rush to convictions to maintain an illusion of efficiency. Mainly set in Monroeville, the birthplace of Harper Lee, the script makes frequent allusions to To Kill a Mockingbird. The invocations create an ironic narrative frame, alluding to a beloved novel about an innocent black man being falsely condemned for a crime he didn’t commit. But, more importantly, the invocations serve to demonstrate how characters use their love of a novel written by a white woman that positions a white man as a hero as a shield against their culpability in racial inequality and violence. 

Some of the writing is obvious, as can be expected by a film that fits into the subgenre of social justice cinema. It searches to expose a social problem and offer solutions. In that regard, the film is unusually sensitive, especially in its demands for dignity and fairness, as it opposes the cruelty of the death penalty. While most of Just Mercy‘s attention to death row is devoted to McMillian, an innocent man, his cellmates are also given a lot of screen time. 

Rob Morgan, in particular, plays Herbert Richardson, who was on death row for planting a bomb that killed his neighbour. Richardson had fought in Vietnam and was honourably discharged after suffering from PTSD. Suicidal and unwell, he was repeatedly refused help before he committed murder. The script’s decision to include his story reveals that Stevenson’s work is not just about freeing the innocent, but affording dignity and rights to those who have committed crimes; that the work of justice is not just about punishment but reformation and also social action to fight poverty, racism and all other forms of injustice. In a film of strong performances, Morgan’s, in particular, resonates powerfully and sensitively.

Just Mercy might not be one of the best social justice films, but it still resonates. It tells a painful story without too much dramatic exaggeration, which is equally a strength and a weakness in its storytelling. Every member of the cast delivers a strong performance. The film does a fantastic job of achieving its mission to raise awareness of the need for criminal justice reform. There is room to argue whether conventional narrative cinema is the best avenue for drawing attention to these issues, but for what it is, Just Mercy hits the mark. ■

Just Mercy opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 10. Watch the trailer below.

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