Wednesday 13 April 2022

Movie Review: Just Mercy (2019)

A legal drama, Just Mercy is a forceful exploration of a system designed to deliver flawed outcomes at the expense of the underprivileged.

In the late 1980s, Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who is Black, moves to Alabama to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, a law practice dedicated to helping wrongly convicted low-income prisoners. Initially, his only assistant is local human rights activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). They start investigating death row files, including the case of Walter "Johnny D" McMillian (Jamie Foxx), sentenced to death for killing an 18-year-old white woman. 

Bryan uncovers evidence of racism in the local justice system, including Black suspects receiving woefully inadequate legal representation, with District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) and Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) only interested in protecting the status quo. Bryan struggles to prevent the state execution of elderly convict Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Black Vietnam War veteran suffering from PTSD. But he does find the entire case against Johnny D hinging on the dubious testimony of criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), and doggedly sets out to secure a new trial.

A biography based on Steveston's 2014 book, Just Mercy successfully combines outrage with persistence. Director Destin Daniel Cretton co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, and exposes an entrenched legal process reeking of racism and satisfied with executing Black men as a proxy for actual crime-solving. The film carries Stevenson's quiet authority like a beacon of light through the sewer, startling rats with audacity.

The positives are potent. Stevenson standing up to District Attorney Chapman is a demonstration of invasive courage confronting obtuseness. The textured side-story of elderly inmate Herbert registers as a front-row seat to contaminated justice. And the two central performances are sturdy. Michael B. Jordan adds the essential trace of self-doubt to Stevenson's fortitude, while Jamie Foxx conveys resignation sparking into hope when his new lawyer actually takes the time to get to know the McMillian family background. 

Some weaknesses in structure and narrative emphasis do emerge. The 137 minutes of running time are marginally excessive, Cretton seemingly intent on chronicling every legal step and meeting. Despite the length, the murder victim and her family in the Johnny D case are entirely ignored, a case of righting one wrong but also diminishing the original tragedy. The Eva Ansley character played by Brie Larson fades in significance after a promising start.

But as obstacles are piled in his path, Steveston boldly goes straight to the source in the form of flawed and only witness Ralph Myers. Here Tim Blake Nelson emerges squinting into the neon light, inhabiting an unforgettable performance full of pitiful opportunism. Jordan and Foxx are excellent; Nelson is a deliriously twisted mess.

It takes a while for the drama to move into the courtroom. Once there the scenes are effective but also relatively routine, although the ability of local judges to embrace rot remains astounding. Deploying facts to counter farce, Just Mercy shocks with dignity. 

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