No matter your political stance, “Just Mercy” makes a powerful argument against the death penalty. Delivering his message with a dedication and intensity that doesn’t present itself as confrontational, writer / director Destin Daniel Cretton uses the film as a conversation starter on racial bias and economic inequality that plagues the U.S. justice system.
The film is a true story about lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice for an Alabama man wrongly accused of murder. It’s based on Stevenson’s memoir about his rise from living as a poor boy in Delaware to becoming a Harvard educated attorney who fights for those who have been abandoned on death row or in prison without proper representation.
The plot focuses on the incendiary case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), a black man who was sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl. Despite the overwhelming evidence that proved his innocence, McMillan spent years on Death Row. With the help of local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Stevenson created the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that continues to provide legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, those without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial.
This is a powerful and thought-provoking look at a man wrongly accused of a murder, and it will light a fire under audiences to take action (whether they actually do anything is another story). Most of the pieces of an awards-bait puzzle that you expect to be present are here, especially those wordy scenes with tight close-ups, teary eyes, and profound lectures about the failures of justice. There’s a compelling enough courtroom drama that’s drawn out near the end, which is mostly disappointing because it makes the movie feel too long. Something with more succinct would leave a greater impact, at least with holding the audience’s attention.
“Just Mercy” is worth watching for the passionate performances as well as an education on this true story. Even more inspiring is that there’s no so-called “white savior” who shows up to rescue these men; instead, they take charge of their own destiny by fighting their own fight. In the end, this is a very conventional biopic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.