Last year, we were at Powell Hall when civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson came to town as part of the St. Louis Speaker Series. Though I wasn’t familiar with his work, exonerating wrongly convicted death row inmates, I was so impressed with the man and what he’s been able to accomplish that I immediately read his book, “Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption.”
That book — part of it, anyway — has now been made into a movie starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to death after being railroaded by a racist sheriff and corrupt system in 1980s Alabama for the murder of a white woman. It was one of Stevenson’s first cases, and the movie shows him (as well as anyone who tried to help) being threatened simply for trying to help an innocent man.
Both of the lead actors are reliably solid. Foxx has the showier role as the tortured, doomed McMillian, and does a fine job with it. Jordan’s character is, of necessity, calmer and more level-headed, even when pulled over by sheriff’s deputies whose only intent is to put some serious fear into him. That means Jordan doesn’t get any big, melodramatic moments, but he does get to give at least one memorable speech in court.
Brie Larson has a supporting role as an assistant to Stevenson at his newly founded Equal Justice Initiative, and Tim Blake Nelson gets to chew some scenery as Ralph Myers, the man whose testimony sent McMillian to jail in the first place. But it is the scenes on death row that help “Just Mercy” rise above the rest of its genre, particularly with the terrific Rob Morgan as a Vietnam Vet with PTSD whose date with the executioner is nearing. O’Shea Jackson Jr. is also good as another condemned inmate in the cell next to McMillian.
Through it all, Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed “Just Mercy” and co-wrote the script with Andrew Lanham, does a good job heightening the tension as the story unfolds to its predictable conclusion. As with many other movies with similar themes, the emotional deck is stacked in favor of Stevenson and McMillian. The most ironic part of “Just Mercy” is when the prosecutor (Rafe Spall) and sheriff (Michael Harding) scold Stevenson, born in Delaware and educated at Harvard, for seeing them solely from a northerner’s viewpoint as racist, Jim Crow, arrogant, southern stereotypes — then go on to fully prove that’s exactly what they are.
Still, I was swept up in the performances and the legal battle. At the end, the mostly black audience at the screening I attended broke out in applause, not just at the final outcome, but also at the post scripts that reveal what happened to the real life people portrayed in the movie and the success Stevenson and his associates have had since then.
“Just Mercy” is a solid legal drama that will introduce more Americans to the work of Stevenson and the EJI, while providing some fine cinematic entertainment and the chance to see Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx together. As for Cretton, this makes two movies in a row he’s done that I really enjoyed — the first being “Short Term 12” (starring Brie Larson), which I added to my Movies You Might Not Know list last year (read my review here).
I give “Just Mercy” an 8.5 out of 10.