Based on the true story of lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his organisation Equal Justice Initiative, this movie is an unflinching portrayal of injustice at the heart of the American legal system, and the heroes who fought – and are still fighting – to create real change.
Just Mercy is a weepy. A good, old-fashioned weepy. If you like crying in movies, this is the one for you.
It stars Michael B Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who moves to Alabama to start an organisation defending death row inmates from capital punishment and Brie Larson as his associate Eva Ansley. The film centres on the real life case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man facing the death penalty for a murder he did not commit. When Bryan takes on his defence, Walter has all but given up hope that he will return to his family and his life. Just Mercy is about how, through tireless campaigning and one man’s dedication to the cause, hope can be restored in the most moving of ways.
So be warned now: it’s a weepy. But Just Mercy is also surprisingly pacey and, at times, light-hearted and humorous.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle), has put together a film that is steady-handed and assured, harking back to the once-popular genre of the legal drama and updating it for modern audiences.
There are plenty of jokes at Bryan’s expense, like when he visits Walter’s family and finds his glass of lemonade topped up every time he takes a sip. Or when Eva (Larson) lets off a string of colourfully employed expletives when her application for office space is turned down, yet again, because of the nature of Equal Justice Initiative’s work.
Or when a court clerk makes the groundbreaking observation that Bryan is a particularly handsome young man. “He married?” she asks one of his female associates, playing audience surrogate for a second. “Married to his work,” she replies with a resigned shrug as Bryan, oblivious to the entire exchange, scours the court documents.
For Bryan, the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, protecting inmates from the death penalty, is the work of a lifetime. From the second we first meet him onscreen as a young black man, seeing himself reflected in the faces of the inmates that he defends – some 42% of death row prisoners are black, even though African Americans make up 13% of the US population – we see a man devoted to his cause.
“The first time I visited death row,” Stevenson tells his mother, early on in the film, “I wasn’t expecting to meet somebody the same age as me. From a neighbourhood just like ours. It coulda been me, Momma.”
Jordan’s performance reflects this conviction. Though the movie features zero stunts or action sequences, the actor’s physicality is still present, like in a scene when Bryan is subjected to a humiliating strip search by police because of the colour of his skin. There is as much shock and crackling, visceral rage in Jordan’s wordless performance, all tense muscles and clenched jaw, as there is in any of his monologues in Black Panther or Creed.
Larson is similarly compelling, bringing a steely-eyed determination to her role as the woman helping build Stevenson’s organisation from the ground up. But the best performance in the film belongs to Foxx, who embodies McMillian with such empathy and genuine, clear-eyed emotion. Foxx has spoken in interviews about how his experience of racism as a child growing up in Texas fuelled his performance. He has also spoken about his firsthand experience of America’s prison system, courtesy of his father’s incarceration. Both things helped him build McMillian’s character; a man kowtowed by systemic racism, who despite protesting his innocence finds himself unable to even dare to dream that he might one day be released from death row.
When we first meet McMillian, he speaks softly and resignedly, his head bowed. He does not meet Stevenson, all ideals wrapped in a neat brown suit, in the eye. Seeing Foxx and Jordan – two of the best actors working today who also happen to be longtime friends, ever since a scrawny, adolescent Jordan first starred in The Wire – play off each other onscreen for the first time is truly thrilling.
During that first meeting Stevenson rattles off his plan for seeking an acquittal. Out of nowhere, McMillian slams his hands on the table. BAM. The sound echoes through the scene, rattling audiences and Jordan alike. “You don’t know what you into down here in Alabama,” McMillian says, shaking his head. “When you’re guilty from the moment you born.”
Just Mercy does not mince its words when it comes to its morals. This is a movie about institutionalised racism and the ways in which that racism has infiltrated every corner of American society, right into the very bones of its justice system. How can justice truly exist, this movie asks, when evidence is fabricated and testimony falsified? How can anyone justify the existence of capital punishment when almost 87% of the black men on death row were convicted as a result of misconducted investigations? How can anyone justify the existence of capital punishment, period?
There are 29 states in the US that still employ the death penalty regularly. In fact, the US is the only Western country in the world that does so, executing 22 people in 2019 alone. Right now, the NAACP reports that there are 2,656 people incarcerated on death row.
These are the people that Just Mercy wants to give voice to and the reason this movie is so important. It’s a movie that wants to start a conversation among its viewers, a film which demands that you engage.
Watching Just Mercy is not a passive viewing experience. How could it be, when it features one of the most harrowing sequences, midway through the movie, when a central character’s last-ditch appeal is denied by the courts and he is sentenced to death? Cretton employes the film’s Gospel-influenced soundtrack to great effect in this scene, building the film’s emotional core to a crescendo in time with the music. Watching Jordan, a mask of stoicism up until this point, crumble into a tsunami of despair is one of the movie’s best, most impactful moments, one that drives home the true senselessness of capital punishment.
Stevenson has dedicated his life to fighting against the injustices of the death penalty, and he continues to fight the cause. We are used to seeing Jordan onscreen as an action hero in movies like Creed, Black Panther or Fantastic Four, but by playing Stevenson in Just Mercy, Jordan portrays a hero of a different kind. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done,” Stevenson says, at one point in the movie. “It’s never too late for justice… We all need grace. We all need mercy.”
Just Mercy is in cinemas in the US and the UK now.
Images: Warner Bros
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
Recommended by Hannah-Rose Yee
Brie Larson brilliantly claps back at sexist trolls who want Captain Marvel to ‘smile’
Brie Larson is using inclusion riders in the most inspiring way on Captain Marvel
Michael B. Jordan has just made a very exciting inclusivity pledge
Zendaya just wore the same suit as Michael B. Jordan, and he had the best reaction