A true-life death-row tale of wrongful imprisonment, racial prejudice and the battle to overturn injustice, Just Mercy is a drama cut from classical Hollywood cloth. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings), it’s a tale not of 12 Angry Men but just one – Bryan Stevenson, a young African-American Harvard Law School graduate who resolves to fight the good fight, defending inmates awaiting execution pro bono.
Set in the late ’80s, Just Mercy sees Stevenson (a robust Michael B. Jordan, who also exec-produces) arrive in Monroe Country, Alabama, where he’s soon drawn to the case of death-row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). McMillian’s family protest his innocence – he’s been convicted of the murder of a young white girl on the flimsiest of evidence. Immediately, Stevenson faces stonewalling from DA Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), who refuses to re-open the case. He’s also subjected to some queasy Deep South prejudice (including a highly unsettling scene where he’s strip-searched before being allowed to enter the prison).
McMillian is reluctant to accept Stevenson’s help – he’s been down this road before only to be disappointed with appeal denials. But rookie lawyer Stevenson, helped by his paralegal, Eva (Brie Larson), is made of sterner stuff. None more so than when he confronts convict Ralph (Tim Blake Nelson), the man whose false testimony got McMillian convicted in the first place.
Where Just Mercy really sings, though, are the scenes on death row between McMillan and the two fellow inmates (O’Shea Jackson, Rob Morgan) in adjacent cells. Their friendship, often in the form of comforting words spoken through the bars, is the most touching element of a film that manages to strike its emotional chords with some resonance.
Echoing the power of his Oscar-winning Ray performance, Foxx is on awards-worthy form again as the dignified McMillian. But perhaps the biggest revelation is Rob Morgan (Mudbound), who plays Herb, a PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran convicted of killing a girl back home. Essayed with real empathy, Herb’s journey will leave you reeling in a film that brings home the horrifying nature of capital punishment.
Penned by Cretton and writing partner Andrew Lanham, this is a stirring, if not exactly subtle, film that makes you feel glad there are people like Stevenson in the world. It explores the US legal system from an African-American perspective in an authentic, rousing fashion. At two hours plus change, the pace can be a little stately, but come the end, you’ll be fighting back the tears.