Editor’s Note: This review is being reposted following Warner Brothers Pictures’ June 2 announcement that they will be giving away free rentals of “Just Mercy” throughout the month of June as a way to raise awareness about systemic racism in the United States. Free copies can be found on Amazon Prime, Vudu and Google Play.
Per Warner Brothers: “We believe in the power of story. ‘Just Mercy’ is one resource we can offer to those who are interested in learning more about the systemic racism that plagues our society.”
Static and Screen was built on the belief that stories matter, and they matter more than ever in times like these. It’s our pleasure to recommend films like “Just Mercy” that help move important cultural conversations forward.
“He drives past 25 prisoners swinging hoes and sickles to cut the grass as two guards on horseback watch over them.”
This simple but chilling image, appearing early in the script of “Just Mercy”, is enough to conjure memories of the American horror of slavery in and of itself. You don’t need to know that this film takes place in the Deep South or in the Monroeville, Alabama that birthed “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The image works not because of its context but because it is connected to something buried deep in the American subconscious.
The brief shot also serves as one of the most concisely effective thesis shots I’ve seen in a film. It tells us director Destin Daniel Cretton’s entire thematic approach to this material: The American prison system is nothing more than a heinous form of slavery that preys on the poor, the mentally ill and other minorities.
Yes, the scene- and the film as a whole- has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But it also stays with the viewer in a way that subtlety often doesn’t.
The film, adapted from a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, tells the story of how Stevenson, an idealistic young lawyer played by Michael B. Jordan, formed the Equal Justice Initiative, which is dedicated to providing pro bono legal services to death row inmates who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and not provided with effective legal representation.
We get to know a few of these inmates and are introduced to others in passing. But the key figure is one Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a pulpwood worker from Alabama who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of a white teenage girl in 1988.
McMillian had 40-some African-American friends who could attest that he was at a church fish fry during the time of the murder. There was also one white man who said McMillian committed the crime. Guess who the judge listened to?
McMillian, then, is something of a test case for Stevenson: Can a black man really get a fair and unbiased trial in America these days?
You might remember this story dominating the news for a hot minute back in 1992 and 1993, but Cretton and his cast find incredible power and truth in what could have been a straightforward true crime saga.
Jordan, as always, is an image of warm empathy, fierce determination and rare humanity. If the script by Cretton and Andrew Lanham gets a bit too close to portraying Stevenson as a living saint, Jordan makes him human and relatable.
It’s been a while since Foxx has had such a juicy role to play, and he seems to relish it. The chemistry he has with Jordan and with inmates played by Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr. give the film its life.
Morgan, I think, deserves special mention for his portrayal of Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam War vet approaching his final days on death row. But really the entire supporting cast is excellent – from Brie Larson as Stevenson’s legal partner to Tim Blake Nelson as an inmate with a secret that could change the trajectory of McMillian’s trial. Even Rafe Spall, as a racist prosecutor, finds notes of humanity in what could easily be a one-note character.
The cast is aided considerably by Cretton, a relatively young director with a knack for finding great dramatic power in deeply ingrained motifs. He displays that skill with the slavery scene and again in the film’s dramatic powerhouse: Herbert’s death by electric chair.
This is a scene with inherent drama, of course, but Cretton takes it to new levels with his visual and vocal cues to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who was himself an innocent man sentenced to death.
Cretton takes care to focus in on Herbert’s wrists as they are strapped into the chair and lingers on the horrified reactions of a guard who, perhaps implicitly, understands Herbert’s innocence. Even Herbert’s final words echo Jesus’s “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
It’s a powerful scene- perhaps the best single moment of any 2019 film- and it’s made all the more powerful by the use of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” as the score. Subtle it is not, but it’s pretty darn effective.
At times, I wished that Cretton provided a little more nuance and that the symbolism wasn’t so heavy-handed and on-the-nose. His portrayal of all black people as saints and all white people (save for Larson) as horrible bigots and racists is an oversimplification, I think. While racism is still a part of the American DNA, I think we have made more progress since the Civil Rights era than Cretton gives us credit for.
But it is impossible to deny that “Just Mercy” (rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets) works despite being heavy-handed at times. It reminds us of the inherent worth of all human beings and that we are all more than our worst misdeed. It pleads for justice but also for mercy and unmerited grace. And if you’re going to pour the moralizing on a little thick, that seems like a pretty good lesson to double down on.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.