From the Archives: Just Mercy is an unblinking look at systemic issues of justice

From the Archives: Just Mercy is an unblinking look at systemic issues of justice

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

I’ve reached a point where no matter what the movie is, if it has Michael B. Jordan in it, I’m going. In fact, when I think back to our Split Decision entry on which performers had the best decade, I lament choosing Adam Driver. I think the answer may actually be Michael B. Jordan. Whatever. Not a big deal, but still. Yes, Driver is absolutely killing it, but he didn’t breathe new life into my all-time favorite franchise the way Jordan did (I’m talking about Rocky). In fact, I think it would be appropriate to relieve Mr. Jordan of his middle initial, which I imagine was employed to separate his name from that of the famous basketball player/Space Jam star. Here in 2020, where the original Michael Jordan is barely thought of beyond that time he brandished a Hitler mustache in a Hanes commercial, I think it’s appropriate to endow the new Jordan with the more streamlined name, leaving the middle initial malarkey to heroes of yore. I’d also like to state that I’m pretty pissed at Joe Biden for ruining the word “malarkey” for me. Come on, dude.

I guess it’s up to Mike B., however, to decide his nomenclature, while I, a mere mortal, must be contented to watch him tear up the silver screen in any and every genre. Damn he’s good. And his latest film, Just Mercy, is yet another showcase for his seemingly bottomless well of talent.

Helmed by writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), Just Mercy chronicles the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a young lawyer who has made it his mission to give legal representation to those who can’t typically afford it. In this case, he has been given a federal grant to represent prisoners on death row who claim to have been wrongfully accused. Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who wrote the book upon which the film is based, takes a particular shine to Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a convict who, despite the overwhelming evidence against his conviction, is so beaten down by the racism and ignorance that brought him to death row that he’s not willing to fight for his own life. You see, in 1980s Alabama, “Just look at him” was enough for the powers that be to take away a man’s agency, a task made doubly easy if the man in question is black. And if you’re a young “city boy” lawyer who aims to upend the status quo the way Stevenson is, being black certainly does not help your cause.

Much like Cretton’s earlier work, Just Mercy has an easygoing rhythm that makes such challenging and emotional material quite enjoyable to watch. But don’t be fooled. As was the case with Short Term 12, the gut-punches are unexpected and slow moving. One subplot in particular, which thoroughly outlines the physical and emotional experience of being condemned to die, culminates in one of the most powerfully affecting sequences of recent memory. It wasn’t until long after the narrative train had left the station that it occurred to me just what was going on. I was clueless to the masterful tugging of heartstrings which was already underway. This is a credit to Cretton’s script (co-written by Andrew Lanham), which finds myriad ways to milk joy out of tragic circumstances, but without failing to give proper emotional weight to the subject matter. It’s so well-written and so supremely well-acted that even when the film dips into slightly off-kilter melodrama (sometimes with a faith-based flair that, while likely accurate to the time and place, felt a bit niche), it’s hard to assign any fault.

Working alongside Stevenson is a fellow activist/law professional named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), who, despite being more demographically suited to the area, receives heaps of bigoted pushback for her mere association with Stevenson and McMillian. Rounding out the supporting cast are Rafe Spall as the prosecutor with a heart of feces, Tim Blake Nelson as the state’s witness, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Stevenson’s death row neighbor, who has also been falsely accused due to deep-seated systemic and interpersonal racism.

I want to give a big shoutout to Rob Morgan for his performance as Herbert Richardson, a man who found himself condemned to death for a violent act that he cannot remember. He’s a Vietnam war veteran, and his struggles with PTSD left him a broken shell. As represented here, Richardson’s story is given nuance it likely hasn’t ever seen, and regardless of how you feel about his guilt, it’s a valuable depiction. Absolutely heartbreaking to behold, made even more impressive by the fact that Morgan, a relative up-and-comer is surrounded by A-list actors all at the top of their game. Even Jamie Foxx, who occasionally goes too big for my taste, taps into the naturalism that gave his performance in Collateral the humanity it so required.

And Michael B. Jordan…well, need I say more? That kid is a star, through and through. I say “kid” because he is two years younger than I am and I need to assert my dominance in some type of way in order to soothe my fear of my own mortality.

The setting for much of the film is Monroeville, Alabama, aka “The Home of To Kill a Mockingbird.” The irony that THE book on due process was penned in a town with a historical lack of such things is not lost on the film, which takes pains to condemn the mentality that leads to prosecutorial misconduct, while also refusing to chalk it up to bland, one-note evil. Here, too, we find nuance that we almost never see assigned to real-life villainy when depicted in film. This consideration of the many civic factors in play is not even necessarily owed to purveyors of such outward racism, but in providing it, Just Mercy gives strength to its own convictions — namely that there’s always room for hope, and more importantly, that people should not be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.

Here in 2020, ya gotta love a call for empathy, especially one that comes in the form of speaking truth to power.

If I may soapbox for a second before I wrap this up: Criminal justice reform is something that I believe we need to focus on heavily here in the USA. Along with a ground up reworking of the business end of the prison system, I hope we can purge our penal code of vengeance-based sentencing — a poison that has infected every nook and cranny of American criminal justice. Be sure to stick around for the end credits of Just Mercy, which are punctuated with postscripts on all of the real world players depicted in the film, as well as a few heartbreaking statistics that make it very clear that capital punishment is nothing short of barbaric and has absolutely got to go. If you disagree, that’s fine, but definitely check back in after watching Just Mercy. I also invite you to check out Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss and Ava DuVernay’s 13th for further perspective on the matter.

Just Mercy opens today in Philly theaters.

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