The people of Monroe County, Alabama take great pride in their museum celebrating Harper Lee, the author behind the iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, it is the first thing residents mention when they encounter newly transplanted Harvard educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan). While they may be delighted by the author’s success, it is clear in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy that many of her book’s teachings have fallen on deaf ears.
The South may hate the media’s portrayal of them being racist but their actions, especially in relation to law enforcement and the penial system, do little to defuse this assessment. This is something Stevenson learns the hard way when he decides to move to the county to set up a firm that provides legal assistance to death row inmates. When Stevenson takes on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man arrested for killing a white woman, he quickly starts to see massive holes in the original conviction. Unfortunately, outside of Stevenson and fellow human right’s defender Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) no one, from the cops to the district attorney, seem interested in seriously looking into the inconsistencies. This sets the stage for an uphill battle that will expose how little has really changes since the Civil Rights era.
Following a similar format to other legal procedurals about injustice, Just Mercy plays it relatively safe from a structural standpoint. The narrative beats are so familiar that it becomes a matter of when, and not if, certain tropes will occur. Take for example, Stevenson getting pulled over by the cops for no reason or Ansley receiving threatening phone calls. However, despite the paint-by-numbers framework, Cretton’s biopic succeeds in giving deep emotional weight to its portrait of the earlier years in Stevenson’s accomplished career.
Anchored by riveting work from Jordan and Foxx, Just Mercy rises above being merely a tale of good overcoming evil. While the duo gives two of the best performances of their careers, it is Rob Morgan who is the true heart of the film. Playing a death row inmate with PTSD, Morgan adds an extra layer of nuance to the film.
Forcing audiences to confront the nature of racism in the legal system, and our own complacency in not speaking up against inequality, the film offers plenty of food for thought. In shining a light on Stevenson’s unrelenting fight for those who have been unfairly persecuted, Just Mercy succeeds in reminding us that hopelessness is a form of injustice that cannot be tolerated. Packing an emotional punch, the film inspires one to get off the sidelines and join the fight for positive change.