‘Just Mercy’ is a courtroom drama

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy.
Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy. Warner Bros.

Is there ever a good time to talk about the death penalty? While capital punishment has long been a favorite subject for prestige pictures, it's a bit of a tough sell at the box office, especially when the American public remains hesitant to engage in a serious discussion of the topic, even when presented with a glossy Hollywood spit shine. This might all explain why this stodgy and formulaic, but ultimately moving docudrama was squeezed out of the crowded holiday-release schedule and hasn't generated much buzz in the awards season rush and end-of-year lists, despite a strong cast and a truly excellent supporting performance from Jamie Foxx.

Just Mercy is based on the memoir of the same title, written by Bryan Stevenson, a dogged attorney who dedicated his considerable talent and passion to defending death-row inmates in the deep South, a challenge few would dare to tackle. A 1985 Harvard Law grad with plenty of lucrative options available to him, Stevenson instead set up shop in Montgomery, Alabama, digging into the dusty case files of defendants that had been lingering for years in a biased penitentiary system inclined to forget them. Michael B. Jordan bravely clenches his jaw and stiffens into a noble posture to play the crusading young lawyer, as he quickly runs out of cheeks to turn to the scornful or suspicious locals and the casually bigoted lawmen who have no desire to help him overturn their rotten apple cart.

One of Stevenson's first clients is Walter "Johnny B" McMillian (Foxx), a hard-working family man, who despite multiple alibis and a lack of any physical evidence, was convicted of killing a white teenage girl, based only on the sketchy testimony of a jailhouse snitch (a twitchy, sweaty Tim Blake Nelson). Walter is a stoic and decent man who refuses to let prison completely harden his heart, or to surrender his dignity to the fate he endures. Even behind bars, Walter is a supportive friend to his neighboring inmates, embracing their innate humanity, even if, unlike him, they're actually guilty.

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) largely resists the urge to turn the convict characters into soulful saints, while simultaneously all but putting a halo over Jordan's head. Stevenson's business partner (Brie Larson) hangs on his every syllable, and perpetually gazes at him with a mixture of admiration, reverence, and lust, though the story doesn't have time for romance, as it proceeds through every legal drama cliché imaginable. We've seen all of this before, including the rousing, righteous courtroom speech Jordan delivers with slightly quivering lips, begging us to answer the better angels of our nature. Though it's all too familiar and a tad too corny, there is a deep-seated and disturbing message to Just Mercy: that the facts and the inherent goodness of the truth aren't always enough to overcome corruption, racism, and the desires for simple answers to complex questions. To get the justice we deserve, we must be prepared to fight.

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