I will hear criticisms of Just Mercy. Those who will say that its adherence to a traditional story arc meant to highlight a typical hero’s journey cheapens the substance of its subject matter. That its legal procedural script template flattens the complications of its very complicated message. I will listen to them and perhaps I will even admit that they’re (partially) true. This new film from Producer and star Michael B. Jordan is guilty of all the same simplifications that comes from any other major Hollywood “message film”. Its appeal is meant to reach wide audiences (which is a kinder way of saying that it’s a film that white people have to like too), and so it’s tale of racial injustice may not contain the kind of bite that a more provocative film would inspire.
But it feels incredibly disingenuous to denote Just Mercy‘s broad appeal without first mentioning the profound humanity that sits at the heart of it. To ignore the brilliance of the film’s entire cast just because it lacks the clever satirical sting of a movie like Parasite or Get Out. More importantly, in a world where Green Book won Best Picture less than a year ago, and films like The Blind Side become major awards season players consistently, to label Just Mercy with priggishness feels remarkably unjustified. Of course, the difference may be that Just Mercy is a social justice film told from the perspective of a black man. It’s based on a best-selling book from Bryan Stevenson, who Jordan portrays in the movie. Its based-on-a-true-story conceit has much less holes in it than Green Book, and yet it’s getting only a fraction of the awards buzz.
It’s dispiriting how the rules seem to change when a studio finally chooses to give a film’s point-of-view to black characters. Suddenly the cinematic integrity becomes much more important, and the discomfort of a white audience suddenly gets translated into criticisms of “lack of style”. I was incredibly moved by Just Mercy, and so was the audience I watched it with. Often, we were wiping away tears as the tasks of Jordan’s Bryan Stevenson begin to feel more and more Sisyphean. The film’s script (by director Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham), tracks Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. A Harvard Law graduate, Stevenson was effected greatly by an internship that introduced him to the glaring inequalities inherent to America’s system of capital punishment.
Hoping to make a difference, Stevenson moves to Alabama in the hopes to provide legal assistance to Death Row inmates unable to afford proper representation. At first, the only help he gets is from Eva (Brie Larson), a white woman who wishes to help clean up her state’s notorious record of unfair, racist sentencing. Their first office is Eva’s living room, which Bryan quickly fills with boxes of case files. He visits several men on death row. One is Herbert Richardson (a heartbreaking Rob Morgan), a Vietnam vet with severe PTSD. He built a bomb that eventually killed a woman, though he swears he never meant to harm anyone, and has already been overcome with guilt. Another is Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a man convicted for a double homicide despite marginal evidence.
Bryan also meets Walter ‘Johnnie D’ McMillan (Jamie Foxx), convicted with murdering an eighteen-year-old woman. McMillan has dozens of family members who attest to his innocence, and his conviction is based almost entirely on the testimony of another convicted murderer, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), whose testimony was exchanged for a shorter sentence in his own case. The evidence for McMillan’s innocence seems alarmingly clear, but Bryan quickly learns that emotions in Johnnie D’s case are very high in this Alabama town. The murder was high-profile, and the white community was eager for its conclusion – McMillan made a very simple solution. Bryan learns that there is political capital for the sheriff and local DA in McMillan’s guilt, which means he will have to overcome gross prejudice in order to achieve true justice.
I have not read Stevenson’s book, though I have always wanted to – especially so now. The film’s choice to focus most of its time on McMillan’s case is understandable, since it has the highest dramatic stakes. Cretton, who also directed the great Short Term 12, is a director who mostly chooses to make emotional appeals for his characters, and not shy toward utilizing sentimental, “tear jerking” tactics. In both that film and Just Mercy, he makes a great case for the use of emotional arguments. I already said that I will listen to several criticisms of Just Mercy, but one that does not make sense to me is that Cretton’s creative choices somehow devalues the characters, because all available evidence points to the exact opposite.
His affection shows in the attention the film pays to gifted actors like Rob Morgan and Tim Blake Nelson. Both men are supremely talented veterans, who are often asked to play a very specific stereotypes in regard to their race. The way Just Mercy gives both of these characters humanity – and these two actors the room to truly create a full, flawed character – is proof of Cretton’s search for empathy. Even Larson’s Eva, whose actions are unquestionably noble, is smart to avoid any semblance of the white savior. If anything, Just Mercy understands so much more about the construct of black and white communion than most films. The key is not respectability and friendliness, but understanding; chiefly, white people understanding their role in the disenfranchisement of black Americans.
Michael B. Jordan is certainly one of our best, most exciting young movie stars. His performance here would not rank amongst his most consequential, though it’s an incredibly generous performance, giving light to the strong supporting performances surrounding him. It highlights the generosity of Stevenson himself, and shows a great maturity of Jordan, who seems to know that you can be a true star without chewing through every single scene. With Dark Waters and Clemency, Just Mercy creates a truly effective trilogy of 2019 films that highlight the stakes of taking on our broken institutions, and the psychic toll of trying to make a difference. Just Mercy is perhaps the most optimistic of these three films, but I don’t necessarily think we should hold that against it.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton