Court dramas on racial injustice can be one of cinema’s most powerful experiences, from Samuel L. Jackson in “A Time to Kill” (1996) to Denzel Washington in “The Hurricane” (1999) to the late Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile” (1999).
This weekend, you can add Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx to that list, as “Just Mercy” emotionally recounts a real-life case of wrongful imprisonment on death row by writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, the rising filmmaker of “Short Term 12” (2013).
The film follows young Harvard Law grad Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who moves to Alabama to launch the Equal Justice Initiative. He takes the case of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a lumberjack from Monroeville who was sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison. Stevenson insists the evidence doesn’t add up, suspecting coerced testimony by a desperate criminal.
After a run of less-serious roles, Foxx reminds us of his dramatic acting chops that won an Oscar in “Ray” (2004) and led a slave revolt in “Django: Unchained” (2012). In “Just Mercy,” his posture subtly evolves from hopeless to determined, skeptically dismissing the young lawyer, then finding reason to believe in a SAG-nominated performance.
His best moments come in cheering his fellow death-row inmates, giving them a pep talk to envision blue skies in the electric chair, then clanking his metal food cup against his cell bars as a rallying cry to support the condemned on their long final death march.
Of the fellow inmates, Rob Morgan delivers a standout role as a war veteran haunted by PTSD and remorse over the accidental killing he caused with a bomb. Conversely, Ice Cube’s son Oshea Jackson Jr. (“Straight Outta Compton”) defiantly maintains his innocence with a stiff upper lip. Equally impressive is Tim Blake Nelson, who shifts his mouth to the side to portray a burn victim turned convict who falsely implicated Foxx.
Rounding out the supporting cast on the legal side is Rafe Spall as the perfectly unlikable prosecutor and Brie Larson as Stevenson’s legal associate Eva Ansley. Granted, it’s not that big of a part for an Oscar winner such as Larson, who commanded lead roles in Cretton’s past two films, “Short Term 12” (2013) and “The Glass Castle” (2017), but it’s a humble move to step back and share the spotlight.
Make no mistake about it, this is Jordan’s movie. No young actor is more exciting after four instant classics in “The Wire” (2002), “Fruitvale Station” (2013), “Creed” (2015) and “Black Panther” (2018). In “Just Mercy,” his hungry young defense lawyer reminds us of Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men” (1992), green with inexperience, naive to the ways of the world, but embodying an optimism that just might change the system.
During his courtroom arguments, you’ll remember a young Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia” (1993), trying to not only win a case but win a moral argument. Older viewers might compare him to Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), which is referenced repeatedly by townspeople who urge Stevenson to visit a Mockingbird museum in Monroeville, home of Harper Lee. Notably, he never does visit.
If there’s any flaw it’s that the script is at times too earnest and on-the-nose. There’s a soul-searching scene where Jordan gazes at the southern landscape for a bittersweet monologue admiring a river’s beauty until he remembers it’s filled with the tears of his enslaved ancestors. It’s a valid sentiment, but it’s taken directly from a Frederick Douglass quote (see Episode 1 of Ken Burns’ documentary “Civil War” on Netflix).
Others might find the procedural pacing too much of a slowburn compared to today’s fast-paced television like “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” but I found it to be refreshingly throwback. It’s true, they just don’t make movies like they used to, so when a film comes along that harks back to the classics, film buffs rejoice.
Most importantly, the movie provides new hope for Hawaiian-born director Cretton, who deserves a second chance after his lackluster adaptation of the best-selling book “The Glass Castle.” Cretton is a proven talent after his Sundance-winning short film “Short Term 12” (2008) became a South By Southwest-winning debut feature film, launching the careers of Larson, Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever and LaKeith Stanfield.
“Just Mercy” doesn’t boast the raw delight of “Short Term 12,” nor rise to a prison masterpiece like “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), but it’s a great addition to a genre that stirs our emotions and calls us to action. The closing text is inspiring, citing the EJI’s successful reversal of 140 death sentences. It’s also shocking, stating that for every nine executions in America, one death-row inmate has been proven innocent.
The issue of capital punishment is complicated. The solution is simple: just mercy.