Destin Daniel Cretton’s filmmaking career has been on quite the upward trajectory. He earned a lot of attention with his 2013 indie drama “Short Term 12”. He was given a bigger budget and a meatier cast for his 2017 followup “The Glass Castle”. In 2021 he’s set to enter the big budget Marvel Universe as director of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. But before that, he has an upcoming movie that’s definitely worth some attention.
Cretton’s new film is “Just Mercy”, a legal drama based on the memoir of tireless civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. It centers around Stevenson’s early work in Alabama during the 1980’s, specifically on the case of Walter McMillan, a wrongfully accused black man sentenced to death for the killing of a young white woman. Cretton’s film offers no frills, no excess, no attempts to push the envelope. It’s very focused on good old-fashioned storytelling and as a result this powerful story is given the attention it needs.
Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson, fresh out of Harvard Law School and eager to make a difference. He leaves his home in Delaware and moves to Montgomery County, Alabama (which is ironically where Harper Lee penned her classic “To Kill a Mockingbird“). He had previously went there to serve an internship and it left a profound impression. Now as a full-on attorney he returns to offer legal assistance free of charge to death row inmates in need of it.
With the help of a local true believer Eva Ansley (played by Cretton favorite Brie Larson) Bryan is able to launch his Equal Justice Initiative. But the ‘good ol’ boy’ justice system doesn’t take kindly to Bryan’s meddling especially when he takes the case of Walter McMillan (who is better known around town as Johnny D). He’s played by a dialed-back Jamie Foxx who gives one of his best performances in years.
Despite there being an overwhelming lack of evidence, Walter was sentenced to death in 1987. Over the next few years he would remain in prison following one failed attempt after another at securing him a new trial. It takes some work, but the understandably cynical and jaded Walter finally agrees to let Bryan take over his case. But as countless obstacles arise, Bryan learns that getting a black man off of death row is no easy task, especially in such a racially-charged environment.
Cretton rarely veers from the McMillan case but one instance where he does happens to be the film’s most powerful scene. It involves Rob Morgan’s heartbreaking portrayal of a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. He too is on death row for planting a bomb that inadvertently kills a young girl. Morgan is a natural and shows us a man tortured by what he has done but also clearly suffering from post-war trauma. It leads to a devastating sequence that is Cretton’s best work to date.
“Just Mercy” digs deep into the blatant injustices and frustrating roadblocks put up by the local authorities. There’s no help from the newly elected district attorney (Rafe Spall) who is more concerned about soiling his reputation with the community than considering Bryan’s motions. Even game-changing revelations about the prosecution’s key witness (played by a terrific Tim Blake Nelson) isn’t enough to tip the racially-biased scales.
It all makes for a troubling and eye-opening examination of institutional racism from a time not so long ago (keep in mind this isn’t set in the 1960’s). The movie doesn’t feel particularly fresh or new but it’s unwavering in its honesty and dedication to its characters (with the exception is Larson’s Eva who is terribly underdeveloped). And I can already hear some criticizing it for not being “angry enough”. But in reality not every film needs to scream from the rooftops. Sometimes simply letting a story speak truth for itself is just as effective.
VERDICT – 4 STARS