Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Already the subject of an HBO documentary that opened in 2019, attorney Bryan Stevenson now gets his dramatized due in Just Mercy, from director Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle). Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has devoted the majority of his adult life to fighting for criminal-justice reform and ensuring that those in need – whether in prison or on trial – receive adequate legal representation. He’s a good man, committed to civil rights and unafraid of speaking truth to power.
As played here by Michael B. Jordan (Creed II), Stevenson is deeply earnest, if initially out of his depth as he gives up a more lucrative post-Harvard Law School career to work in rural Alabama trying to help poor inmates on death row. He has some seed money courtesy of a grant he has received, and a local helper in Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, Captain Marvel), but not much else. Plagued by local racists, of the overt and covert kind – the latter constantly urging Stevenson to check out the To Kill a Mockingbird museum, billed as “one of the great Civil Rights monuments of the South” – Stevenson and Ansley persevere, slowly building a practice, though without great results. Still, it’s a start.
It’s when Stevenson meets Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx, Baby Driver), however, that his crusade kicks into high gear. McMillian is one of a slew of men on death row whose conviction just doesn’t stand up to even the barest of scrutinies. Known as “Johnny D,” McMillian is far from a perfect human being (who is?), but his sins of marital infidelity do not a killer make, and as Stevenson probes into the details of his case, it becomes ever clearer that the police and the prosecutor did not do their jobs. Why bother? Who cares about black bodies, after all? Well, Stevenson and his growing crew of attorneys and assistants care, and they soldier on.
This is the kind of heartfelt, sincere movie that has an inspiring narrative to tell and tells it relatively well. The cast is more than capable and the meditation on our broken justice system has never been more urgently needed. Unfortunately, as moving as the underlying story may be, the mise-en-scène is often little more than pedestrian, never more evident as in the courtroom sequences, filled with the kind of speechifying and sudden reversals that really only ever happen in cinema. Still, though it’s frustrating that the film isn’t better, the performances and message pull us through the weaker parts. Just Mercy may not be perfect, but it is more than effective.