Anyone who’s ever read Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” should appreciate the latest spin on racial injustice in the South from writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”). Cretton adapts lawyer-turned-author Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy” with a talented cast delivering subdued performances after portraying larger-than-life characters in films “Black Panther,” “Baby Driver,” ”Captain Marvel” and “Straight Outta Compton.”
Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson who, at the beginning of the film, is working as an intern at a law firm. He visits an inmate in Alabama on death row, who’s practically the same age, to deliver the news that there has been a stay of execution in the case. Despite the different paths taken in life by the two men, they come from similar backgrounds. That meeting proved to be the inspiration for Stevenson who dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of the poor.
After graduating Harvard, and against his mother’s wishes, Stevenson heads back to the South to start the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative in the heart of “Mockingbird” territory, Monroe County, Ala., birthplace to author Harper Lee. The year is 1989, and sadly, almost three decades after the novel’s release, first impressions indicate that little has changed in the racially charged area even though residents seem to be proud of the Harper Lee civil rights museum housed in the old courthouse.
Brie Larson reteams with Cretton for the third time to play activist Eva Ansley, a local mother concerned about the racial injustice that exists in her community. After securing office space for the EJI, she encounters pushback from the locals who refuse to lease the property after Stevenson arrives in town. She decides to help Stevenson by letting him set up the nonprofit organization in her home, which leads to death threats from the locals.
The film is evocative of “In the Heat of the Night,” but Jordan shies away from Sidney Poitier’s tenacious disposition when encountering racism, instead, falling in line with Gregory Peck’s self-effacing Atticus Finch from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film based on Lee’s novel.
It’s great seeing Jordan bring compassion to the role in a restrained performance after appearing as Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis, in the “Rocky” spinoffs and Killmonger in “Black Panther.” The actor displays extraordinary range with a superb performance that recalls his groundbreaking role in 2013’s “Fruitvale Station.”
Cretton’s screenplay, written with Andrew Lanham, doesn’t downplay the struggle Stevenson dealt with by avoiding miraculous developments once Stevenson arrives and begins working with the poor and wrongfully incarcerated. The film takes a strong anti-capital punishment stance without getting political. Yes, some of the convicts on death row are guilty, but what about those people wrongfully put to death for crimes they didn’t commit? “Just Mercy” is focused on one of those wrongfully incarcerated inmates, Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx.
McMillian is accused of murdering an 18-year-old white girl and sent to death row even before his trial begins. It all seems to be payback for an affair he had with a white woman that set the racist town off. During the time of the murder, McMillian was with family, and there was never any evidence to link him to the crime, but the inept police couldn’t solve the crime and guess who becomes their scapegoat?
Foxx, arguably one of Hollywood’s best actors, thrives in roles like this that fully take advantage of his tremendous talent. Like Jordan, the actor is operating in low-key mode, which makes his performance impactful. The majority of the film features Stevenson working rigorously to get McMillian exonerated, while McMillian tries to regain hope after dealing with failed lawyers and a corrupt system. The film’s best moments are the ones that feature Jordan and Foxx together.
The supporting cast features Tim Blake Nelson as a witness for the state who helped convict Stevenson and Rafe Spall as the new district attorney who refuses to look at the compelling evidence that indicates McMillian is innocent. Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr. have small but far-reaching roles as inmates on death row housed with McMillian, while Karan Kendrick plays McMillian’s wife, Minnie, who keeps the family strong and filled with hope.
“Just Mercy” features fantastic performances from Jordan and Foxx while shedding light on the trailblazing work accomplished by Stevenson, Ansley and the Equal Justice Initiative. Make sure to stay for the closing credit sequence, which features updates on the real life people portrayed in the film.