Just Mercy, based on the book of the same name, follows Harvard Law graduate Bryan Stephenson, played by Michael B Jordan, on his fight for justice. Moving to Alabama, he starts up a legal firm, specialising in helping those on death row, and providing legal aid to the wrongly incarcerated.
One of the first cases he encounters is that of Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx. Arrested for the murder of a white teenager, despite evidence proving his innocence, he’s sat on death row awaiting his date. Stephenson and his aide Eva, Brie Larson with a fabulous accent and an intense wig, work to provide the evidence of McMillian’s innocence. Unfortunately, in a town filled with institutionalised racism, getting anyone to listen seems an impossible task. Facing closed doors, an unjust system and death threats, the film is a tough and shocking watch at times.
There are a handful of scenes that stand out above the rest of the film. When Jordan’s character first visits the prison he is forced to partake in a strip search by a white guard, despite being legal counsel and therefore not necessary. Jordan maintains the quiet dignity and seething rage excellently, showcasing not only his acting talents, but the brilliant subtleties he brings to the character. All of the scenes set on death row are moving, none more so than the cheers and shouts of the prisoners when one of their own is taken down to the chair.
Jordan and Larson are dependable and believable, if a little safe. Foxx fills out the story, allowing the audience to connect with him and the other death row inmates, providing a much needed heart to the story. It is the 3 main inmates, Foxx’s Walter, Herbert played by Rob Morgan and Anthony played by O’Shea Jackson, who carry the film to more than a made for TV procedural. Despite spending the majority of the film separated by walls, director Deston Daniel Cretton’s decision to film all 3 at the same time to capture their responses works. Their care for each other, despite never seeing each other’s faces is something that could have been explore more.
The story of the film is important and poignant, but Cretton takes few chances in his adaptation of the source material and the whole film feels very safe. Death row and wrongful incarceration has been looked at in film numerous times, and though the story is shocking and heartbreaking, it doesn’t feel like there is anything new to explore here. There were moments clearly designed to pull at heart strings, but the emotion and fire of the film just isn’t there. Saying this, it’s still an important and interesting story, one that many would assume took place decades ago, rather than in a quite recent history. I’m sure it will find an audience and spark conversation around the death penalty, but the film is likely to be forgotten before the end of the year.
Just Mercy is released in UK cinemas January 17