Just Mercy – redemption, justice, and more besides ★★★

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx star in this refined, fresh, yet emotionally bruising interpretation of the relationship between lawyer and client. Walter McMillan (Foxx) is put on death row, convicted for murder on the basis of flimsy evidence and testimony. After being rejected or abandoned by previous lawyers, his faith in the legal system is depleted. Enter Bryan Stevenson (Jordan), a Harvard law graduate who goes to Alabama to give a voice to those who are silenced and on death row. It’s a story that is ‘inspired by true events’, and – unlike many other such films – it remains faithful to the real sequence of those events. The battle for McMillan’s release feeds into a larger battle against institutionalised prejudice, racism, and marginalisation of communities. 

The film is littered with references to the literary classic To Kill A Mockingbird, another story about a lawyer fighting the unfairness of America’s justice system. Upon Stevenson’s arrival in Monroeville, Alabama, he is reminded several times to visit the To Kill A Mockingbird museum because of its important standing in the American civil rights movement. Harper Lee herself was from Monroeville, and based the novel on her upbringing there in the 1930s. It ought to be ironic that the central issues of Lee’s work resonate as much in the 80s as they did in the 30s — as they do to this day. 

The most successful element of this film is its distance from ‘Hollywood drama’. Hollywood loves a courtroom scene, as evidenced by the recent and rather melodramatic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The downplayed approach of the courtroom in Just Mercy allows the portrayal of injustice to feel far more truthful. While the film is a slow-burner, it is far from pretentious, and adopts an autobiographical tone regarding Stevenson’s achievements. There is a natural poignancy to the narrative as McMillian’s case establishes a blueprint for Stevenson’s career which, unfortunately, does not sound too far from racial bias in cases we hear about today. That being said, the final scene does go one big speech too far. 

Foxx has been MIA for a few years now, failing to produce anything of notable credit; his return in this film is nothing short of excellent. A shining moment occurs when Stevenson and McMillan are in a deep, stripped-down conversation, one that demands concentration and attention from an audience. 

The brutality and horror of death row powerfully dominate the film. However, there are elements of story-telling where, in an attempt to illustrate the broad experiences of inmates, the complexity displayed by the actors conflicts with the lack of room for subtlety.

Despite some questionable directorial choices, the film is incredibly moving. Just Mercy reminds the viewer of Stevenson’s past pieces and provokes questions for his future work. 

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