Just Mercy (2019)
Just Mercy (2019)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 16 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 2019 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton Actors: Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan, Drew Scheid, Michael Harding

 


 

I

n 1987 in Monroe County, Alabama, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) fells a tree in the woods, finishing up work for his own small business. On his return home, after the sun sets, he’s stopped by a squadron of police, who promptly yank him from his vehicle and cuff him. “… ‘cause after what you done, I’m looking for any excuse to get this over with, right here, right now,” warns the arresting officer, Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding), overly eager to discharge his firearm. Johnny D is accused of murdering 18-year-old Ronda Morrison – a white teenager – and he’s convicted speedily (placed on death row even before his trial begins). Though he’s eventually sentenced to life, a judge changes that to the death penalty to appease angered citizens.

Shortly thereafter, in Jackson, Georgia, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), an intern still going to school at Harvard to be a lawyer, visits a prisoner to deliver the news that execution isn’t in the immediate future – a message welcomed by plentiful tears. Bryan doesn’t know exactly what he’ll do once he graduates, but he’s intent on helping people – and conversing with death row inmates seems like an underserved, deserving place to start. Two years later, he moves from his home in Delaware to Alabama to do just that – to provide legal counsel to those most in need. He meets up with director of operations Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), who is to assist Stevenson, now the executive director of a new, federally-funded legal center for death row inmates (the Equal Justice Initiative). And his first task is to see clients at the W.C. Holman Correctional Facility, where he’s met with immediate hostility and harassment (including a strip search by a perfectly cast man with a perfectly punchable face).

“There’s always something that we can do.” Based on a true story, Stevenson eventually interviews McMillian, who cautions him about the Alabama legal system – and the fact that no one has ever gotten off death row. And McMillian is tired of going through the same processes over and over again, having his appeals rejected and contending with systemic racism in the state’s prison. “… when you’re guilty from the moment you’re born,” he ruminates. As Bryan starts digging into the capital case, he finds gross negligence in the trial, a cluster of brazen lies, withheld information, and a severe lack of evidence (the conviction was largely based on the sole testimony of an indicted felon, Ralph Bernard Myers [Tim Blake Nelson], looking to cut a deal) – as well as a wealth of potential contemporary enemies, including current District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall).

A true-to-life tale about racial injustice isn’t new (just last year, “If Beale Street Could Talk” presented comparable themes); but this particular account is brimming with fascinating details, a first-rate cast (Nelson is especially amusing as an idiosyncratic, tormented, disfigured convict), and a modern eye for legal thrills. Nevertheless, much of the film is a standard lawyer procedural, involving the retreading of investigatory routines – from canvassing the neighborhood to conducting fresh interviews to facing roadblocks of people unwilling to reopen old wounds, even if it leads to the truth. The plot is additionally full of infuriating incidents, a labyrinthine conspiracy, and the dangers of unchecked intolerance – a recipe for emotional tumult.

Strangely, however, McMillian’s scenario doesn’t seem to be enough for the writers; they’ve also woven two extra cases into the fold – that of Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), both similarly stuck on death row. These subplots provide more examples of judicial transgression, as well as heart-tugging tragedy, yet they stretch out the running time unnecessarily – chiefly since they proceed with total predictability. McMillian’s central dilemma is more than substantial enough to carry the entire picture alone.

Plus, a few key components are missing, suggesting that “Just Mercy” skipped past them due to time or editing constraints, lingering instead on less important notes. Still, many of the supplementary sequences, no matter how peripheral, are potent – and serve as warnings of things to come. As the film progresses, introducing outrage after outrage, spanning a considerable amount of years, it only becomes more evident that McMillian’s case didn’t need outside elements to complicate (or even drag out) an already absorbing plot (the coda before the credits roll even ends on information unrelated to McMillian). As a result, the movie is overlong, even if the scenes with the relevant characters – and the final revelations, with stirring speeches – are riveting.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10