Having found his flow with moral drama Short Term 12, director Destin Daniel Cretton is back after his 2017 release The Glass Castle, this time with an adaptation of book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by esteemed lawyer Bryan Stevenson.
Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is a fresh-faced lawyer, determined to action positive change for those most in need. And there’s nobody more in need than someone sitting on Death Row for a crime they didn’t commit. Enter Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillan (Jamie Foxx), living in Monroe County in Alabama, who’s been convicted of murdering Ronda Morrison, a young woman working at a dry cleaners in town. Except, he didn’t do it.
However, as a black man living and working in the deep south, it doesn’t matter how hard he persists, he’ll never be seen as innocent. With nothing to lose, Bryan moves across to the state, hoping to help Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) as she campaigns for prisoners holding unfair convictions. Facing a mountain of paperwork for the numerous cases needing review, Eva and Bryan have their work cut out for them – until Johnny D’s family hear word of the team’s mission and come on-board, all with solid alibis for him. Turns out, there’s enough evidence to prove Johnny D couldn’t have committed the murder – but how do you fight the system when it’s been corrupted from within for decades?
Knowing nothing about the film ahead of the screening, I was pleasantly surprised to see several big names joining Jordan, Foxx and Larson. Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr. feature as Johnny D’s cellmates, Herbert Richardson and Anthony Ray Hinton. Richardson, a Vietnam veteran suffering with PTSD, has been convicted of planting a deadly bomb on someone’s porch, while Hinton apparently took part in the murder of two fast food servers – much like Johnny D, he’s innocent but ignored. Watching from the sidelines, a smug smile plastered across his moustached face, is Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), the district attorney presiding over the local courts, pleased with himself for clearing Monroe County’s dusty streets of three innocent black men (and many more) – just because he could.
Based around the actual McMillan/Stevenson case from 1986, we’re witnesses to Bryan’s fight for justice, not only for Johnny D, but wrongly incarcerated people across the States, where you could (and still can be) arrested just because you look like you might’ve committed a crime.
Jordan, maybe best known for his action-packed roles in Creed, Fantastic Four and Black Panther, is a phenomenal lead, managing to carry such a heavy subject with confidence. As the narrative progresses, we see Bryan develop and grow as a lawyer and we see Jordan walk taller, standing proudly beside Foxx in the tense courtroom scenes or confronting Spall for his corrupt ways. His final few scenes contrast brilliantly with one of his first as he enters the prison, subjected to a humiliating body search, stripping down to his underwear as a guard looks on. A close-up of Jordan’s face shows him attempting to hold his emotions in, but the quiver of his lip reveals all. We see that lip quiver again after he’s witness to an execution by electric chair – a long, drawn-out, uncomfortable scene, and rightly so when covering something so harrowing. Partnered with Larson, Bryan and Eva are a fantastically powerful pairing – while he’s nervous yet composed, she’s brash, openly angry, and not scared to let the odd curse word drop.
A particular standout performance for me comes from acting royalty Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers. With a long criminal record, having been in and out of jail himself, Myers testifies saying he saw Johnny D at the scene of the crime – but did he? With the use of subtle prosthetics and a drawling Southern accent, Nelson totally embodies Myers, down to his laboured walk and barking laugh. A true chameleon amongst men.
Full of tension throughout, Cretton has done a fantastic job of bringing such an important, current story to the big screen. From the impressive cast to the haunting cinematography inside the prison cells, Just Mercy invites the audience in for a moral storytelling, but leaves them wanting to take action. Its only downfall? Its 137 minute run-time. Feeling a little too long in places, it definitely feels like an over-two hour film – just make sure to settle in comfortably.
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