The Reel Review
This biographical legal drama is based on civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson and his real life efforts to free Alabama death row prisoner Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, wrongly convicted of the 1986 murder of a white teenage girl, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Starring Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) and Oscar winners Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Brie Larson (Room), it is based on Stevenson’s 2014 book by the same name.
Hawaiian-born director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (The Shack, Short Term 12) lays out a fairly standard, paint by numbers message piece about the idealistic young Harvard law graduate who moved to Alabama to help right the wrongs of a shockingly broken and unjust legal system stacked against impoverished black men – often due to inadequate legal representation, or in the McMillian case, an outright miscarriage of justice. While Cretton’s inspiring film ticks all the boxes and has some of the expected compelling moments, at times it lacks emotional gravitas – its villains a bit too cartoonish and one-dimensional to adequately convey the sense of outrage – an outrage also often puzzlingly muted by its own understated story.
Jordan, Foxx and Larson (in a surprisingly thin role) all do a fine job, but Just Mercy‘s standout is Rob Morgan (Mudbound, The Photograph), in his portrait of another of Stevenson’s clients – a death row inmate ravaged by PTSD from the Vietnam War. Morgan’s performance, and in particular, his harrowing, climactic scene, will break your heart. Surprisingly, it is his performance that is the soul of this well done, but otherwise predictable film.
• Bryan Stevenson plays the role of his real life father in the film.
• Just Mercy marks the third collaboration between director Destin Daniel Cretton and Brie Larson, after 2017’s The Glass Castle and 2013’s Short Term 12.