Just Mercy

by Toby Woollaston

jmVerdict: A conventional but engaging true story of judicial injustice.

True stories are never the easiest ones to tell. Beholden to a number of restrictions, among them that pesky thing called “the truth”, Just Mercy’s writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) appears to have cautiously tiptoed through this minefield with a very straight-laced retelling of the racially charged Johnny D McMillian case.

Set in Alabama’s deep south, Just Mercy tells the tale of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a lawyer fresh from Harvard, who makes the unenviable decision to represent death-row prisoners. Stevenson has been (and continues to be) a strong advocate for American legal reform and social justice and his defence of McMillian (Jamie Foxx), which this film focuses on, is a damning statement on the American judiciary system.

The death penalty sentence dished out to McMillian built entirely on the back of a false testimony from Ralph Myers, (a convicted white felon seeking a reduced sentence—played by a wonderfully jittery Tim Blake Nelson) despite there being multiple black accounts to the contrary, lends this film a solid platform to make some pointed statements on race and justice. It’s a compelling story, made even more remarkable by Stevenson who has since exposed the staggering statistic that one in nine prisoners on death-row have since been exonerated.

However, as well-intended as this retelling is, it’s a film that might’ve been better served with a narrower focus. Just Mercy’s impact is unfortunately diluted by peripheral characters who seem to distract rather than solicit emotional buy-in to the Stevenson/McMillian relationship (Brie Larsen’s token white office-worker among them). Furthermore, Cretton appears to shy away from using artistic licence to sell the story, which is a shame because Just Mercy operates best in the fleeting moments where artistic embellishments surface.

But despite missed opportunities, what rises out of the carcass of conventionality are some impressive performances, in particular, Jordan whose measured take on a man with a heart pained by racial injustice elevates this film above the typical prestige drama template. While Just Mercy is conventional it certainly holds your attention.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.