Monroeville, Alabama, 1987.
By itself, the setting of Destin Daniel Cretton’s real-life courthouse drama, Just Mercy, demonstrates the vexing contrast between the film’s jarring and inherit truths, as well as its pompously neat and nearly snooty handling of them. On the one hand, seeing the year 1987 as the backdrop to the shameful arresting and sentencing of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a woodworker who served six years on Death Row for a murder he didn’t commit, is enough to take you aback; watching a swarm of police officers huddle and revolver rope the innocent black man suggests a movie more directly about the distant past. But on the other, having it share its hometown with Harper Lee where she wrote her quintessential American novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, and to have that fact paraded and celebrated for the entire first half of the film, Just Mercy pivots into the self-congratulatory, tamely observant, and ultimately useless algorithm most films about black anguish hire.
While there’s something to be said for a historical film that articulates its timely purpose and connection so coherently, in the present period, where these horrid truths and sick abuses of power are more exposed than at any point in the nation’s history – exposed is not to mean fixed – Just Mercy’s spoon-fed approach is not only unappreciated, uncreative, and unartistic, but degrading as well.
Michael B. Jordan stars as social justice attorney Bryan Stevenson. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, the young man ventures down to Alabama and opens up shop doing something nobody’s ever done before: getting innocent men off Death Row. It’s a thankless task that’s apparently so toxic to the racial hierarchy of the town that his assistant Eva Ansley (a drastically underused Brie Larson) has to lie to leasers in order to secure office space.
Not long after establishing the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson hits the ground running for his clients. It’s almost needless to say that their incarceration is defined by the ticks of a clock, but in Stevenson’s line of work, the clock on Death Row is conceptually erratic.
For instance, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) has been an inmate for the longest time out of anyone shown in the film. Unlike McMillian, Richardson is guilty of the crime he committed and actually believes that he belongs there. Mentally scrambled following his service in Vietnam and plagued by PTSD, the veteran caused the death of a young girl when a bomb he planted on her porch exploded.
Richardson’s heartbreaking arc is the one truly successful and satisfying element of Just Mercy. In his interactions, he brews life into the otherwise flat characters and their equally underwhelming performers. Though the buzz surrounding Just Mercy this awards season has primarily circulated around Foxx, Morgan’s excellent performance is being unfairly overshadowed. Foxx’s greatest moments in the film are those alongside Morgan, as the two jailbirds chirp and confide and console each other between their cement dorms.
Jordan’s performance is similarly informed by Morgan’s. Though the young Yankee lawyer is characteristically inept in displaying the booming presence of Alabama native Atticus Finch in the court room, the harrowing scene in which he first witnesses the reality of his cause –Herbert’s finale – is one that soaks in the viewer’s mind for a long time afterwards. It is one of the few scenes in the film that require the audience to contemplate the severity of Stevenson’s work and the dueling complexities that make up the justice system. If only the rest of Just Mercy worked like this instead of relying on easy tropes to address its audience.
by Luke Parker