Destin Daniel Cretton’s new feature film is a model of restraint and grace in the social justice film genre
Films about social justice have long been an awards magnet. Known for their play on emotional heartstrings and sometimes schmaltzy approaches, they seek to touch, inspire and sometimes manipulate audiences. JUST MERCY could have been one of those – a grandstanding, theatrics-reliant film that shouts social justice messages loud and clear without any room for subtlety and contemplation.
Thankfully, director Destin Daniel Cretton, best known for Short Term 12, avoids such clichés and creates a sobering, restrained and unsentimental picture that still packs quite an emotional punch without resorting to plate-smashing, over-blown scenes that seek to reiterate its important – and poignant – social message. At a time when movies repeatedly attempt to amplify their importance factor, especially when attempting for awards play, Just Mercy prioritizes the struggle and pain of those who never receive fair treatment in the American judicial statement over any attempts to turn the story into a forcibly tear-jerker, on-the-nose depiction of true events.
Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is a Harvard Law graduate who makes quite the decision: to fight for prisoners on death row in Monroe, Alabama. The story is set in the 1980s, a particular time of significance in US history as no African-American prisoners on death row were ever given a proper legal defense nor a re-trial. With the help of his supportive colleague Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Stevenson launches a prisoners’ right office, aiding the marginalized to get the proper legal support they deserve. Soon after, he stumbles upon the curious case of Water McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who was charged for killing a white woman despite dubious evidence that supports such charge. Together, both men embark on a journey of friendship, hope, trust and self discovery.
The film’s biggest merit is in its narrative approach. While it does take some time to pick up, due to a somewhat slow start that paints a backdrop of the judicial system in Alabama at the time, the film pivots away from conventional tropes and centers on the impact of injustice rather than attempting to create empathy that’s not properly validated narratively. It’s an approach that’s reminiscent of what Barry Jenkins did with IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, but Destin Daniel Cretton pulls if off in a more accessible, yet still restrained and graceful manner that’s likely to keep average audiences engaged and artsy crowds satisfied.
It’s an approach that mostly works because of a singular performance that embodies the film’s unsentimental yet piercing approach. As Water McMillian, Jamie Foxx delivers one of the best performances of his career as a man struggling to hold out hope against injustice and discrimination. The film belongs to Foxx whose performance is of impeccably smart: he avoids painting the character as a weepy victim and opts to hold back tears, avoid loud over-acting and deliver a quiet yet stirring look at a man whose life behind bars was as painful as it was illuminating. And when the character does break down, Foxx’s performance is all the more believable and earned as we clearly see a man’s journey come full circle.
While Jordan and Larson get to do solid work, the film ultimately shines thanks to supporting performances from Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan, Rafe Spall and O’Shea Jackson Jr. whose characters are all the more interestingly developed than the film’s leads. Whether this was a conscious scripting decision or an oversight, it serves the narrative’s zoom on the actual case and helps further immerse viewers in McMillian’s incredible story.
Verdict: JUST MERCY is deceptively straightforward and may be seen as traditional for some, but it is all but that. A graceful, sharp and impeccably acted film that packs an emotional punch in the quietest and most profound ways possible.
This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. Warner Bros will release Just Mercy in select theaters on Christmas Day and then wide on January 10, 2020.