Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx shine in the true story of a man wrongfully imprisoned and the civil rights hero who fights for him in Destin Daniel Cretton’s new film
Destin Daniel Cretton has launched the careers of some of the most recognizable and awarded actors. Short Term 12 gave many of us our first looks at Lakeith Stanfield (FX’s Atlanta, Get Out), Stephanie Beatriz (NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and eventual Oscar winners Brie Larson (Room) and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody). With Just Mercy, he’s working with a more established batch of talent but it only gives his film the bona fides and the backing of a major studio (Warner Bros) to make it his most high-profile film to date.
1987, Monroe County, Alabama. Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian (a superb Jamie Foxx, his best since Collateral) is a tree-cutter who owns his own business. But that doesn’t keep the local police from harassing and targeting him. In fact, it makes them do it even moreso. “That’s a nice truck you got there,” says Sheriff Tate as he approaches McMillian at a police roadblock meant specifically for him. The mere idea that a black man could make something of himself and have no boss (no master, really) is too much for Tate to swallow. Despite cooperating (hands on the steering wheel, polite ‘yes sir and no sir’) McMillian is violently arrested for the murder of a young white woman.
Enter Bryan Stevenson (an understated Michael B. Jordan) a fresh, young Harvard Law intern from New Jersey who wants to set up a legal defense group for death row inmates in the South. “You’re not at risk of execution in the next year,” he tells an inmate. To most, at least an audience, it’s a scary moment, the rumination of impending death but for the prisoner it’s a sigh of relief. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all year,” he says.
Cut to two years later and Stevenson is ready to set up shop with psychology graduate Eve Ansley (Brie Larson). As the “Director of Operations,” she has done the legwork in securing the office space…until the building owners finds out what kind of business they plan on doing. With the doors closed in their faces, they start out in Eve’s house and are met with bomb threats.
Upon entering the prison to meet with inmates, Stevenson is abruptly questioned by the intake officer (“You really a lawyer?”) and is forced to submit to a humiliating and unlawful. strip search. Meeting with McMillian, toughened and beaten down after two years (including being put on death row a full year before his trial), Stevenson tries to be as hopeful as possible – there’s no evidence, no fingerprints – but McMillian isn’t buying it. “They’re gonna eat you up and spit you out,” he says. “The only suit they wanna see a n***er in is mine.”
Much of our action takes place in Monroeville, Alabama and everyone is eager to point out that “Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird here!” and “Y’all should visit the museum!” in an effort to quell the country-fried racism that boils just underneath and often over. But Just Mercy is far more akin to In the Heat of the Night (both the novel and the film). Both feature a brutal crime in the deep South being investigated by a black Northern lawyer in an area so hostile, so aggressively and openly violent towards its protagonist, that a lesser man would have hightailed it out of town.
A handful of actors shine in small supporting roles, including O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (Straight Outta Compton) as another wrongfully accused prisoner and Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), as the key to McMillian’s innocence. But it’s Rob Morgan (Mudbound), as a Vietnam vet who did commit the crime he’s in prison for, whose performance is absolutely searing and indelible. A sidebar: clean-shaven in the film, Morgan so uncannily resembles author James Baldwin that I began daydreaming of a lush and vivid biopic until I had to bring myself back to the film. Rafe Spall is also good as the local attorney dead set on thwarting Stevenson’s efforts. The film’s technical elements – from the editing by Oscar nominee Nat Sanders (Moonlight), the score by Joel P. West and cinematography by Brett Pawlak (all three of Short Term 12) are all top notch.
The most compelling element of this story, of its time period and of circling all the way back to In the Heat of the Night and To Kill a Mockingbird, is that in the United States in 2019 this is not a distant memory. There is no post-racial America; in fact, in many ways it’s worse. Racists are once again emboldened and not hiding. The criminal justice system still favors the white and wealthy while black men, when they’re not being killed by police first, are overwhelmingly the prison population majority and rarely given a fair trial. An epilogue of the film says that for every 10 executions that take place one person is demonstrably proven innocent of the crime for which they died for. It’s a horrifying statistic and ratio and a very real one. But, as Stevenson says during a U.S. Senate Hearing on the death penalty at the film’s close, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” Truer words have never been spoken.
Just Mercy had its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. It will appear at the 42nd Mill Valley Film Festival in October as the Opening Night Film. Warner Bros. will release the film in select theaters on Christmas Day and then take it wide on January 10, 2020.