Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest film sees Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, a newly graduated Harvard lawyer who sets up the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, an organisation dedicated to providing legal assistance to wrongly convicted inmates on death row, and in amongst all the clients he sees, he takes a particular interest in the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who has been convicted of killing a young woman, despite very little evidence. While investigating the case, Bryan and his colleague Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) start to realise just how little evidence there was at his trial, as well as the one supposed eyewitness being noticeably unreliable, but although Walter’s innocence is clear, Bryan faces an uphill battle as he finds the legal system to be unfairly working against him and as the townspeople, police, lawyers and judges appear determined to send Walter to his death, utterly convinced of his guilt, Bryan and his team work tirelessly and do whatever it takes to see justice prevail.
Channeling the likes To Kill a Mockingbird and the more recent When They See Us, given its structure and increasingly relevant themes, Just Mercy is a timely and important film that clearly wants to get us angry at the flawed system of justice in America – where innocent people of colour can be convicted of a crime just so that the self-serving police and lawyers can close their cases as quickly as possible and proclaim to the public that justice has been served, where the defence lawyers can clearly prove the innocence of the wrongly convicted but the defendant is found guilty anyway, and where people of colour in places like the south are “born guilty” and are subject to so much prejudice, violence and shockingly unfair treatment – and the film succeeds in this because as we get to know the real life characters of Bryan and Walter, as well as a couple of the other death row inmates who all have their own stories, we grow to like them and will them to succeed but we also come to understand how they face a rigged game of a justice system and however hard they try, they continually face roadblocks as their efforts are halted and the prosecuting lawyers and townspeople grow increasingly determined to stop them from succeeding, claiming that they don’t want to upset the victim’s family and to make the “public feel safe”, many simply looking out for their own interests. It doesn’t hit quite as hard as something like When They See Us, it runs on for a little too long, and the scenes of oppression and racism are those that we’ve probably already witnessed in other, similar, films/TV shows, but the flawed system of criminal justice is all too recognisable – it will seemingly always be a societal problem that needs reform – and as injustice continues to happen in modern times, well made films like this are necessary to make us aware of the cases of those who came before and that we have to get mad at what’s happening in the world.
The film succeeds in provoking an emotional reaction from the audience because as the opposing powers “move the finish line further away” and justice is continually, unfairly denied, despite the intelligent arguments and indisputable facts provided by the defence, we are left aggravated and shocked at how it’s seemingly impossible to prove the innocence of an innocent man and as we witness the inmates start to crumble while the prosecutors pat themselves on the back for a job well done, we truly feel the despair and hopelessness of the protagonists. But thankfully, these moments aren’t “hammered home” in a preachy, obvious or emotionally manipulative way, the script remaining genuine and believable throughout, and what’s more, the story finds time for moments of levity as we also witness a touch of warm humour, as well as the bonds between family and friendship, and, just as it was with When They See Us, there’s also a message of hope and in the moments when good things happen to our characters, we really smile along with them and the film succeeds in getting us to share in their well earned joy.
Just Mercy is a well directed film as Cretton manages to strike the ideal tonal balance, as well as keeping us continually invested in the story through his solid writing, and the cinematography is lovely too; there are a number of visually appealing shots and both Cretton and DOP Brett Pawlak occasionally utilise subtle handheld camerawork to attain a sense of realism and importance – though thankfully this technique is not overused – and they make use of mid and big close ups to let us see the emotion on the characters’ faces and to keep us hanging on their every word. The film also benefits from an excellent cast and in the leading role, Michael B. Jordan stands tall as he convincingly matures over the course of the film, going from a slightly green law graduate into a tougher and more determined defender of the people, and he does well in showing Bryan’s initial naivety as well as his staunch resolve and steely determination, also showing signs of weakness as he’s often brought close to the edge and displays inner turmoil and despair when things get rough. The film also has good supporting performances from Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr. but of the other performances, it’s Jamie Foxx who shines brightest in his role of Walter McMillian; when we meet him, he’s clearly accepted his fate and he rejects Bryan’s help as he’s convinced that nothing can be done, sticking to his stoic belief that the system will kill him without mercy, but when he starts working with Bryan, he comes to life a little more, occasionally joking around and bonding with him, and we see him get increasingly hopeful and determined but when things so wrong, his “tough shell” clearly cracks and he lets his emotions surface and succumbs to despair and misery, which is truly something to witness – this is Foxx at his very best as he truly embodies the character, giving a very well rounded, transformative, and emotionally affecting performance.