Just Mercy movie review: fighting the never-ending good fight

MaryAnn’s quick take: This true origin story of a literal social-justice warrior is earnest, passionate... and exhausting. We need to keep telling these stories, yet each is but another tiny drop of water in a rough ocean.
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I’m “biast” (pro): big fan of social justice
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

So anyway, Your Honor, America is garbage. If I may direct the jury to exhibit 45,984,108: Just Mercy, yet another earnest, passionate social-justice drama about yet another good person trying to clean up the mess. As ever, this film is much needed and yet also entirely exhausting. We keep telling these stories, which we absolutely need to do, but not much ever changes, this shit just never ends. Because, I dunno, these movies can only ever preach to the choir? What racist authoritarian asshat who thinks the death penalty is a good thing and it’s just totally fair and normal that black men end up on death row in proportions way the hell out of whack with their representation in the population is going to plunk his hard-earned cash down for a ticket and a tub of popcorn and sit through this?

Just Mercy Jamie Foxx Michael B. Jordan
Can a black man — on either side of the table — get justice in racist America?

I honestly don’t know how people like Bryan Stevenson keep up the fight. Just Mercy is the true origin story of a literal social-justice warrior, a Harvard-educated lawyer who, in the late 1980s, launched the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, to take on the neediest, most desperate cases. His first client — as depicted here — is Walter McMillian, on death row for a murder he says he did not commit, a contention backed up by ample evidence. Oh, was a black man, as McMillian is, railroaded by white cops and white prosecutors in the Deep South? I’m shocked — shocked. And oh, is a black lawyer — as Stevenson is — gonna get a ton of racist pushback as he tries to keep the state from killing McMillian? You better believe it.

A few years ago, writer (with Andrew Lanham) and director Destin Daniel Cretton gave us the deeply compassionate but never sentimental foster-care drama Short Term 12. He pulls off a similar feat in Just Mercy, working from the book of the same name by Stevenson, zooming in with bald factuality on the most outrageous tidbits from the Stevenson-McMillian collaboration to highlight just how completely fucked the notion of American “justice” is.

Just Mercy Brie Larson
A white lady lawyer’s hairdo may be dated, but the racism she is helping to fight never seems to go out of style, alas.

Here is Michael B. Jordan (Creed II, Black Panther), as Stevenson, being strip-searched — a shocking indignity that should never be forced upon anyone, and certainly not upon a defense attorney — as he enters prison to visit his client. Jordan is warm and sensitive, as always, with a slow burn of rage necessarily tempered by his acute awareness of the fine line he must walk as a black man, even one with the authority he carries as a lawyer, in this awful culture. Your heart breaks for him, and then rages with him.

Here is Jamie Foxx (Robin Hood, Baby Driver) as McMillian, unwilling to get his hopes up in the face of the eager young — and naive — law-school grad before him. (“You know how many people been freed from Alabama death row?” he asks Stevenson, wearily. “None. What makes you think you gonna change that?”) McMillian was placed on death row — like, literally housed in a cell in the same bit of prison as other men waiting to be executed — even before his trial! That’s how foregone a conclusion his conviction was. This is an insular bigoted little world in which the damning testimony of one white felon is accepted over the exculpatory testimony of multiple law-abiding black citizens. Foxx shoulders this crush of unfairness with a posture that might feel regal if it weren’t also inescapable.

Just Mercy
The city of Montgomery, Alabama, will not welcome being told it isn’t distributing justice equally…

Just Mercy has no time for racist cops, or for DAs (British actor Rafe Spall [Men in Black: International, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom] sporting an American Southern accent!) who are inexplicably more concerned about their conviction rate that with getting actual violent criminals off the street. Yet it is here for the vulnerable people are misused and abused by an unjust system: Tim Blake Nelson (Angel Has Fallen, Fantastic Four) is extraordinary as that one white felon twisted into bearing false witness against McMillian. The film even has time for prison guards who know they have to shut down their empathy in order to carry out executions, and it is very much on the side of the humanity of those on death row, even if they are guilty of a terrible crime — see how Jordan is irrepressibly kind as he bonds with and can find things to laugh about with another death-row inmate who admits his crime.

The power of the movie’s ending sneaks up on you, especially if you think you’ve gotten inured to these sorts of stories. But the long slog to justice that Just Mercy is all about… well, it continues to be infuriating to see how corrupt the American system of jurisprudence is. People like Bryan Stevenson are doing to hard work of righting these wrongs, and deserve to be celebrated for it. But it feels like a tiny drop of water in a rough ocean.

first viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival

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