Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Just Mercy is a drama based on fact. It has solid performances and a few moments of true power. However, its message is too mixed to land properly. The story of a black lawyer who went to Alabama to defend inmates on death row and ends up working for a black man whose incarceration appears to be built on lies, it is about a man using the legal system to combat racism. It is also about a crusade against the death penalty in general, arguing that poor people are sacrificed by a system looking for easy answers. These are both deep and worthy topics that certainly do not have to be independent of each other to make an impact. In this case, it is a clunky fit. They could have combined to make a single, strong, point. Instead, they get in each other’s way, diluting the overall effect. It can be compelling, but stumbles over too many manipulative clichés while trying to say a little too much at once.
In 1988, Walter McMillian was sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman due to the testimony of a white felon. A few years later, lawyer Bryan Stevenson looks over his case and notices alarming red flags that convince him of Walter’s innocence. He vows to seek justice, putting him up against a government more interested in protecting itself than in finding the truth.
There is definitely a formula to legal dramas and Just Mercy (131 minutes, without the end credits) follows it in a pretty predictable way. I have said before that a formula becomes one for a reason. It is a proven way to get an intended reaction out of the audience; in this instance, anger, hope and a decent amount of suspense. For me, a formula works when it feels natural. Here, it did not work because the characters did not feel real, even though they are based on a true story. They are puppets, existing to embody ideas and spout the movie’s message. The lawyer is brave, determined and believes in the law. The accused is a family man who was targeted exclusively because of his race. The antagonists are all one-dimensional, hate-filled, racists. The lack of nuance comes off as manipulative, making it feel closer to a thriller than it should have been. When a character was introduced, I immediately knew what role they would play in the formula. That made it impossible to get emotionally invested in the proceedings.
Racism and the unjust (yet legal) killing of innocent people are absolutely worthwhile causes to fight. Just Mercy (adapted from the 2015 memoir by Bryan Stevenson) mainly makes those points obviously and with a strange calm. I have no idea how the story actually went, but by having the villains be single-mindedly evil, it makes things too easy for us. That is a big problem in many movies about racism; racists are portrayed as inhuman monsters. Sadly, this is not entirely accurate. Some are very human monsters who fail to understand their own hatred and the pain and suffering it brings. One-dimensional characterizations allow us to dismiss our possible prejudices because, clearly, we are better than those jerks. As a result, these types of stories play it too safe.
It also feels like Just Mercy is holding back. It does not seem as angry as it made me. The speeches are lacking in passion, like they were hoping not to offend anyone. You can see the anger boiling up inside Bryan and Walter, it just never really comes out. Perhaps it did not have a place in the formula. Instead, they calmly comment on the racism inherent in the story, before uncomfortably shifting to talking about people on death row who did not get a fair trial. There is undeniably a way to fight both at the same time. It is done awkwardly here.
Despite some good points and powerful subject matter, this is a letdown. Michael B. Jordan is very good as Bryan Stevenson, battling through tropes to create an occasionally convincing hero. Jamie Foxx has a tougher go as Walter, but his talent pops out a handful of times as a man who has been burnt once too many and is trying not to get his hopes up. Brie Larson, as Stevenson’s assistant, is barely given a character to play, yet her reaction shots do a tremendous job of emphasizing the protagonist’s journey. She does a lot with almost nothing. That cast in this material should have been a slam-dunk, not a moderately interesting miss. Its presentation is muddled and routine. It is hamstrung by its formula and confused in how to make its message heard. It tries too hard to be liked and ends up saying less than it thinks it does.
2¾ out of 5
Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson
Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian
Brie Larson as Eva Ansley
Rafe Spall as Tommy Chapman
Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers
Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson
O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Anthony Ray Hinton
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham