Just Mercy, like Dark Waters, is the Hollywood message movie whose message comes without the typical emotional catharsis and feelgood slap on the back. It is a movie not just about racism but how racism permeates every layer of our legal system whether we acknowledge it or not. The system is inherently racist whether we say so or not, so we might as well as say so.
Adapted from a book of the same name about his exepriences by Bryan Stevenson, Destin Daniel Cretton takes a look at Alabama in the late eighties and early nineties. A look at the place where reconstruction happened, in name only, which as Cretton implies heavily, can be said of the country as a whole. Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) a recent Harvard Law graduate heads down to Monroeville to set up the EQI (Equal Justice Initiative).
The goal is simply to reevaluate the cases of over a hundred death row inmates and see if they were given adequate legal representation and a fair trial. Upon Bryan’s arrival, he is not unsurprised by the animosity which greets him. Though he is slightly taken aback by the number of white people who sincerely tell him he needs to visit the Harper Lee museum in town.
Just Mercy isn’t subtle but then again neither is the institutional racism within our own legal system. Bryan is helped by a local woman Eva (Brie Larson). She acts as his administrative assistant and guides him through the town’s history and local politics. Bryan’s quiet and optimistic personality is a delightful clash for the brash clear-eyed realist of Eva.
It would be easy for Cretton and his co-writer Andrew Lanham to merely focus on the most famous of his cases Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). A man tried and convicted for the murder of a local white woman despite him being put on death row before his trial even took place. But Cretton and Lanham show us the burden and stress of working on several cases at once.
Bryan is also working cases for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and others as well. Each case has its own merits, setbacks, and resolutions. Cretton wisely shows us the failures and successes.
Herbert was convicted of killing a woman with a homemade bomb he put on her porch. A Vietnam vet he suffered from brain injuries he sustained during the war. Of the prisoners on death row, he is one of the few is actually guilty of the crime but Cretton and Lanham show us he is being executed for his blackness, not for his crimes for which if he was white he would have more than likely been committed to a hospital where he could get the treatment he needed.
This is Cretton’s fourth film. I have seen all but his first. The theme running through all his films is abuse whether it be societal, sexual, or familial, he appears to have the most comprehensive grasp of the consequences and psychological impacts. As a survivor myself I must confess to having an anxiety attack after seeing Glass Castle a deeply flawed film but effective nonetheless.
Just Mercy hits hard without ever letting you know the hit is coming. But it is not without humor such as when Eva and Bryan are sitting on her porch and she idly puffs a cigarette as they talk about the dangers of what they are setting out to do. “Maybe they’ll change their mind once they see how charming we are.”
Jordan’s Bryan will possibly be overlooked because of all the performances, his is the most difficult. Jordan is the star of the movie but also never hogs the scenes. He is generous with his fellow actors allowing both to shine; he listens. The job of listening is such an important job for an actor but it doesn’t garner awards because it requires restraint and acting with one’s eyes which often goes unnoticed by audiences.
While discussing the case with Walter, Cretton allows the camera to sit slightly away from the two, framing both actors. Jordan sits while Foxx speaks. But if you watch closely you’ll notice how Jordan cleverly lets us into Bryan’s mind by how intently he listens and how he reacts but never in a way to interrupt Walter or upstage Foxx’s performance.
Cretton has a way with actors which allows them to give nuanced and grounded performances unable to be nurtured by other directors. Larson, for example, has been in three of his four films and is excellent in each one. Here, her Eva, while more a supporting character, within moments of appearing on the screen her character is complete.
He allows his actors to build from the ground up so when we see them we know them. There is no, “Well this guy seems okay, I wonder how this will turn out.” Actors in a Cretton movie are able to create whole characters who seem to have backstories and traumas etched into their very souls.
Foxx’s Walter will doubtless be praised for its magnificence, and rightly so. But more than it’s excellence, it should be noted that Foxx is so good I never caught him acting. I hate to use an overused phrase, of which I am guilty of as well, but it is a grounded performance without the frills and emotional blow-ups we usually see in films like these.
By sidestepping scenes in which the music swells and good triumph over evil hardwired into these types of movies, Cretton and Lanham infuse the story with a sense of almost overwhelming fury and despair. The case against Walter is so obviously flimsy that it boggles the mind that District Attorney Chapman (Rafe Spall) would work so hard to keep Stevensons from getting an appeal.
D.A. Chapman tells Bryan that Walter is guilty and deserves to die, and in the same breath says, “Oh and you should really stop by the Harper Lee museum. You know the courthouse is where the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird is set.” To the folks of Monroeville, civil rights defeated racism and therefore no more exists.
Even if you reduce Just Mercy to a mere “social justice message movie” I don’t know how you could overlook the joyous cornucopia of performances. The legacy of Harry Dean Stanton lives on in Rob Morgan and Tim Blake Nelson. Character actors so distinct and recognizable we gasp in glee when they appear eager to see masters hone their craft. Nelson as Ralph Meyers, the man whose testimony put Walter at the scene of the crime manages to walk the line of terrific and entertaining without ever robbing the story and the character of the gravity surrounding it.
Morgan’s Herbert is executed, giving Bryan, and ourselves, a sense of defeat. Cretton and his cinematographer Brett Pawlak, along with the editor Nat Sanders, construct the execution scene with a sort of resigned restraint. With Pawlak’s camera acting as unforgiving eye and Sanders’ editing cutting from the death row inmates, to Bryan watching behind the glass, to Richardson being prepared; Cretton orchestrates it all with a sublime effortlessness which makes the scene gut-wrenching and he never once shows Herbert being electrocuted.
It is a moment, that even through my own tears, I could appreciate the technical and brilliant craftsmanship which designed the moment for its emotional potency. Just Mercy is not packed wall-to-wall with these moments though. They are sparse.
But when they happen you will find yourself, like I did, overcome with fury, hopelessness, sadness, but heartened by the deft humanity behind the camera. The climactic moment is not a grand trial. Though it takes place in a courtroom, the battle takes place within a soul of the District Attorney as he faces the most difficult truth of all, his own complacency and active role in the racism which has ravaged his own community.
Just Mercy eschews easy solutions and instead shows us the hard work needed for equality to exist in any form and gives us no easy victories. Cretton possesses an astute and abundant emotional intelligence which sets him apart from many of his peers. He has a remarkable capacity for not only experiencing empathy but displaying empathy so that the audience can experience it for themselves.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures