Just Mercy is a film with all good intentions, and at its best it’s able to mine a lot of dramatic activism on behalf of its real life subjects. At its worst it’s a painfully generic and rather plainly told courtroom drama, and one that doesn’t dive too deep into the legal minutia or explore the cast itself all that much. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the way the film is directed and there’s a lot of visual cues left to be desired, but Just Mercy works purely on the raw pathos generated by the performances.
Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is a Harvard law student and aspiring attorney who gains an interest in defending prisoners on death row. As he takes on multiple clients in Alabama, Stevenson comes across Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a former arborist who has been wrongfully convicted for the murder of a teenage girl. Stevenson digs deep into the case, but with a system hell bent on convicting McMillian because of the color of his skin, the life of this innocent man hangs in the balance.
I said “digs deep,” but the actual casework is not always the priority of the film- there’s a lot of documents being handed back and forth and legal terms being thrown around, but the actual investigation is never very interesting. What is interesting is the nature of justice that’s being discussed; not only is it a film about how the deeply rooted racism of America’s history makes it impossible to create impartial justice, but it also begs the question of whether killing someone is ever justified if there’s a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed. These themes largely come from extended (and generally unrealistic) monologues, but the ideas themselves leave a lot to think about.
It’s the performances that very much drive the film, and Michael B. Jordan is perfectly cast as a whip smart, confident law student whose eagerness to make right with the world is taken down to Earth when he realizes the confines of his situation. As a black attorney defending convicted criminals, Jordan is up against a system that resents him, and while he goes in full aware of what he’s up against, the humiliation he feels at being treated as a second class citizen still comes as a shock. Jordan is charismatic and able to maintain his composure both in and out of the courtroom, and his earnestness makes any extended monologues or courtroom proceedings electrifying.
The real strength of the film, however, lies with Jamie Foxx, as his pivotal role as a wrongfully convicted man is emblematic of an entire system of malpractice and bigotry. Foxx has a quiet composure to his performance, as he’s been so disparaged by his treatment that any advances from Jordan feel like false hope to him. My only issue though is that he needed more screen time, and while seeing Jordan visit his separated family and learn about him through his community is an important dramatic building block, the entire narrative is based on Foxx, who oddly disappears for much of the second act. Many of the film’s best scenes focus on Foxx’s relationships with other death row inmates, with Rob Morgan giving a standout performance as a veteran whose PTSD landed him with a death sentence.
It’s a good thing that each performance is so riveting, as the film’s methodical approach to looking at the case is very basic in its step by step process. The film excels when its acknowledging the larger truths (Jordan spends all this time defending one man, but there are countless more wrongfully convicted men sentenced to die), but the structure feels sanitized and oddly familiar- of course the mid-plot proceeding goes wrong, because they half to build tension for the finale. A lot of the subtlety and little details that add nuance to the situation (such as cops guarding a public court proceeding), but a lot of the more overt attempts to add strain to the situation feel manufactured, and many characters make decisions that feel too convenient for such a grim story.
Just Mercy is often best when it’s being reflective- the flashbacks to the normal life of Foxx’s life before incarceration are often dreamlike and their presentation, and scenes as simple as Jordan attending a church ceremony have a poignant wordless power. Even with some one-note side characters, rambling thematic monologues, and traditional structure, Just Mercy culminates with a powerful call to action, and although it acknowledges the vastness of the issue, it also celebrates the small victories along the way. Grade: B