Lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) has just graduated from Harvard with a law degree, which means there’s only one clear course of action to take one. That’s right, Stevenson is going to move down to Alabama and create a non-profit law firm that specializes in providing free legal services to death row inmates. It’s a crusade that’s highly unorthodox, to put it gently, especially considering Stevenson is a Black man trying to fight against a justice system that inherently sees people of color as immediately guilt. However, Stevenson wants to use his lawyer's gifts to help the most underserved of American citizens. After all, these are not inhuman monsters, but people who could be anybody. Heck, Stevenson himself observes to his Mother at one point that “It could have been me, Mama”
One of his first clients is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a local business owner accused of assaulting and murdering a teenage white woman. McMillian is claiming his innocence and the evidence used to throw him on Death Row is as flimsy as you can get. But restoring justice and clearing McMillian’s name will be a monumental task as Stevenson combats a corrupt justice system bent on dehumanizing and incarcerating people of color. The fact that Just Mercy clearly depicts racism as a societally-ingrained woe rather than just the result of “a few bad apples” is reflective of the commendably introspective script penned by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham (the former of whom also directs Just Mercy). It’s a welcome sharp contrast to how most major studio releases tackling the topic of racial inequality as well as just an approach that works for this particular story.
Reflecting that reality helps to make the stakes of Just Mercy’s plot (which also takes place closer to the present, in the early 1990’s, than many period-era stories about American racism) as appropriately daunting as they are. There isn’t just one racist person to overcome here, there’s an entire corrupt justice system to confront, we’re dealing with the ultimate David vs. Goliath tale. To boot, text during the end credits smartly reaffirms how corrupt racism still reverberates well into the modern-day world. Just Mercy’s portrait of how powerful forms of racism manifest in American power structures is appropriately expansive but Just Mercy’s very best moments tend to come in the form of smaller-scale elements.
Specifically, intimate scenes emphasizing the humanity of the inmates placed upon death row tend to be the very best parts of Just Mercy. Quiet sequences depicting Walter McMillian and his two incarcerated companions, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), simply talking to one another across their individual jail cells are extremely poignant. Through moments like McMillian talking Richardson through calming breathing exercises, we get to see these three treat each other as the human beings that they are. Much of society may have abandoned this trio of prisoners, but the thoughtful screenwriting and tender on-screen performances movingly demonstrates how these prisoners haven’t abandoned by each other. Such softly powerful and emotionally involving scenes echo similar sequences in the earlier Destin Daniel Cretton directorial effort Short Term 12, chiefly LaKeith Stanfield’s revealing bongo-drum accompanied song, in how they lend humanity and distinct personality to individuals that society has cast aside.
Drawing up comparisons to Short Term 12 is never a bad thing and speaks to just how well Just Mercy realizes the humanity of its most marginalized characters. Said characters get to have equal footing with Michael B. Jordan’s Bryan Stevenson as the lead of the motion picture. As for Stevenson, he’s an interesting departure from typical movie lawyers in how he favors eschewing dramatically pointing to the doorway of the courtroom to reveal surprise witnesses and other bombastic traits in favor of a more restrained soft-spoken personality. Though he’s more muted than your typical movie lawyer, Stevenson is still written to be a distinctly warm empathetic fellow, the kind of guy whose 110% devotion to doing the right thing is something you don’t doubt for a second.
That kind of demeanor is extremely well-realized in the hands of Michael B. Jordan. Right from the get-go in the opening scene of Just Mercy, which sees college-aged Stevenson interacting with a Death Row inmate for the first time, Jordan has such naturalism in his interactions with the prisoners his character bounces off of. Jordan’s gift for having charisma with everyone he comes into contact with serves this character well, it gives Bryan Stevenson a friendly quality that doesn’t come off as smarmy or forced. Clearly, Jordan’s impressive versatility across the likes of Fruitvale Station to Creed is alive and well here in Just Mercy, but he doesn’t deliver the best performance of the project.
That honor goes to a two-way tie in the form of Jamie Foxx and Rob Morgan, both of whom are exceptional in their vastly different individual roles. The consistently underrated Foxx sheds away any traces of his prior performances for the role of Walter McMillian and he especially excels in depicting how McMillian has become hardened after serving two years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. There’s a wall around McMillian and Foxx makes you totally understand why this character has put up that barrier. The performances and a more expansive approach to tackling systemic racism are the best parts of Just Mercy, which, like any movie, does have its fair share of flaws. Most prominent among its issues is a third act that ends up becoming a more predictable courtroom drama, you can guess all the beats of this section of the project right down to a big surprise supporter for Stevenson’s cause. Still, Just Mercy packs a powerful punch thanks to a far more realistic approach to societally-ingrained racism than you’d normally see in a major studio release as well as writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton channeling the empathetic spirit of his previous movie Short Term 12. Oh, and there’s also an assemblage of strong performances to be found, any movie like Just Mercy that reminds one of how talented actors like Jamie Foxx and Rob Morgan are is more than A-OK in my book.