To say that “Just Mercy” doesn’t have a certain charm would be unfair to the actors who were relentless in successfully applying their talents to make “Just Mercy” worth the watch. However, the film inspired by the memoir of the same name, that details the origins of the career of Bryan Stevenson, gives a “made-for-TV” style movie makeover for the best-selling author and criminal justice reform advocate’s personal story.
Luckily for director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton, the performances – particularly Jamie Foxx – add enough power and grit to effectively display the intention of Stevenson’s compelling and inspirational work where the script and storyline fall short.
Just as in the book, “Just Mercy” details Stevenson’s unlikely professional journey that led to his life’s passion – one that took him from his home state of Delaware to the deep south to advocate for the wrongly convicted.
Stevenson could have done anything or gone anywhere to put his Harvard Law degree to use. Instead of a fast-track to a lucrative career with all the access and residuals that come with his Ivy League education, he chose to work towards equity for marginalized individuals trapped in a system where for them “equal justice for all” is the exception and not the rule.
Hearing Stevenson speak of the biases and flat out overt racism he has experienced over the past 30 years of defending the most vulnerable of condemned prisoners is both eye-opening and transformative. But for the most part, “Just Mercy” the film plays it safe.
Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton seemed mindful to turn Stevenson’s efforts to tip the unbalanced scales of justice often experienced by African Americans into a movie that white people don’t have to feel guilty about while sitting through it.
A co-protagonist portrayed by Brie Larson – who is positioned more as Stevenson’s boss and saving grace instead of the administrative and research support that she actually is – plays to the mostly well-meaning white people with a few bad apples myth and passive ally justification that keeps systemic racism from being effectively dismantled.
But Cretton owes a debt to the talented ensemble charged with breathing authenticity into his version of Stevenson’s story. Michael B. Jordan plays it safe, but charm and nuance compensate for the lack of risk and raw emotion. His Bryan Stevenson is somebody a viewer can’t help but root for. He shares a natural chemistry with Larson’s Eva Ansley.
But Jamie Foxx deserves the MVP for his portrayal of Walter McMillan – an innocent man condemned to death for a crime he didn’t commit, with his life on the line because of racist corruption and inadequate legal representation. Known to family and friends as “Johnny D.,” a lack of resources has him languishing on death row until his case lands in the lap of Stevenson. Foxx masterfully captures every range of emotion of McMillan – from the time of his arrest through his pending execution. Foxx makes it clear from his introductory scene that he would be delivering the definitive performance among the “Just Mercy” cast. His body language and the cadence of his vernacular as he experiences the highs and lows of hope and despair as he languishes in prison as a defeated, frustrated, innocent man speak to his abilities as an actor.
O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan and Tim Blake Nelson round out the well-meshed group of principal actors that are saving grace of “Just Mercy.”
Just Mercy opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, January 10. The film is rated PG-13 with a running time of 137 minutes.