Based on a true story, ‘Just Mercy’ follows civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he dedicates his career to defending prisoners on death row. His greatest challenge yet proves to be representing Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who is sentenced to death after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white woman in Alabama. Stevenson will not only have to prove his case but challenge the justice system and prejudices that led to McMillian’s arrest.
The very title of this legal drama, based on the memoir of the same name by Bryan Stevenson, provokes questions of the viewer in and of itself. Can we have a justice system, so often associated with punishment, that is merciful, a word that indicates compassion and forgiveness? From there it launches into a harrowing exploration of systemic racism in a setting, the 1980s, not all that far from the present day, highlighting most particularly the injustices prisoners face if they are poor as well as black. Some injustices are small, others great, and they all pile together to form a system and society that is neither just nor merciful.
Foxx is exquisite as McMillan but Jordan, as the gentle, self-assured, and well-manned Stevenson, can definitely hold a candle to him. Jordan has proven in the likes of ‘Creed’ and ‘Black Panther’ that he is a superstar, pure and simple, and part of his charm is the way that he acts like he doesn’t even realise how good he is. There’s a solid supporting cast too between Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, scene-stealer Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan among others.
A wide range of emotions run through ‘Just Mercy’, spanning heartache, despair, anger, frustration and fear. There are so many sad true stories interwoven, such as a church singer who learns he won’t be sentenced to death in the next year, a veteran suffering from PTSD, and a man on death row but whose friend murdered someone, but did nothing wrong himself. It has a strong anti-death sentence agenda, and you’d be hard pressed not to feel the same after the movie.
When it gets into the courtroom drama territory, it plays out at an even pace, balancing the investigation and trial, with key revelations in between. Hopeful and heart-breaking moments punctuate the movie but the emotional peak of the film – a scene that sees an inmate approach the electric chair – comes a bit too early. Still, the ending is uplifting and satisfying with a forceful but important message for all. Thus, while the beats aren’t always right on cue, ‘Just Mercy’ makes for a powerful film and exemplary to all on how we need to and can do better.