Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson
Just Mercy is a thoughtful meditation of the nature of compassion and cruelty. It’s a startling reminder that human beings are capable of both extremes. The film has been adapted from the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained lawyer, who moved to a small town in Alabama in 1989 to review charges against death row inmates. Bryan is black like most of the men he defends. But the system – police, prosecution, judiciary – is white. Which means there is little hope of justice or mercy. As one of the prisoners Walter McMillian puts it – you’re guilty from the moment you are born.
Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton tells the story with a somber stillness. There is an overarching compassion but also a measured pace. It took me a good 15 to 20 minutes to sink into the film. Just Mercy accrues its power slowly. Cretton builds layer upon layer until suddenly, surprisingly, you find yourself get teary. It’s devastating to witness the blatant racism. The upholders of the law aren’t even trying to pretend that the system is fair. Black men are denied justice at every step.
Just Mercy isn’t stylistically dazzling. The chronicle of racism is also familiar. But director Destin Daniel Cretton and his leads give the narrative an urgency and timeliness
The film benefits vastly from strong performances by Michael B. Jordan who plays Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx, who plays McMillian, a logger who has been framed for the murder of a white woman. Jordan plays down his natural charisma and renders skillfully Bryan’s frustration and resilience. Early in the film, when Stevenson enters the correctional facility, he is strip searched. His eyes seem haunted by the humiliation of it – there is no reason for him to be subjected to this except to satisfy a white cop’s whim. Meanwhile Foxx stays stoic in the face of discrimination and death. His suffering gives him a nobility. He keeps his dignity intact, which makes the situation even more heart-breaking. When McMillian finally crumbles, you weep with him. Oscar-winner Brie Larson also appears as a local advocate who works alongside Stevenson but there isn’t enough in her character to justify the casting.
The centerpiece of Just Mercy is the execution of a mentally ill prisoner named Herb. Cretton doesn’t allow us to look away from what it’s like to take a life. Herb’s request for a certain song, his fear and eventual acceptance of his fate and the sound made when electric shocks kill him is horrific. The sequence eloquently slams the legal system.
Just before he is arrested, McMillian, who is cutting trees, looks up and contemplates the sky. That patch of blue becomes his solace as he waits to be hanged for a crime he did not commit. Cretton returns to it again through the film, making it a poignant reminder of how much most of us take for granted.
Just Mercy isn’t stylistically dazzling. The chronicle of racism is also familiar. But Cretton and his leads give the narrative an urgency and timeliness. After all, injustice fueled by bigotry and bias, is a story currently playing out in every corner of the world, including ours.