Just Mercy (2019)

Just Mercy
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writer: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham,
Based on: Bryan Stevenson‘s memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Harding, Hayes Mercure
Seen on: 12.3.2020

Content Note: (criticism of) racism

In 1987, Walter McMillian, called Johnny D. (Jamie Foxx), is arrested for the murder of a young, white woman. Despite his protestations of innocence, he is sentenced to death. In 1989, young Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) opens the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, determined to help prisoners on death row who are often black and have often had only insufficient legal representation. He meets Johnny D. and, convinced of his innocence, takes up the fight to prove it.

Just Mercy is definitely an emotional film and one with an important political point to make, but it does feel a little like it’s trying too hard to stay too clean.

The film poster showing Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) in front of an orange background with various film stills.

If this film wasn’t based on a true story, you’d shake your head at the utterly ridiculous conviction Johnny D. had to suffer through. The case was so obviously corrupt, in a fictional story it would never get past an editor. But truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, and here we are. Sometimes racism is that blatant.

But even if that part is true, the film keeps things a little too simple. The bad guys are cartoonishly evil, the good guys are noble heroes. Nobody is much of a character, and the film generally tries to play it safe, leaning on the desperation and the apparently endless hope, but showing us none of the anger that comes with (systemic) injustice. Because if black people are shown to be angry, that might upset the whites.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and Johnny D. (Jamie Foxx) waiting for judgement in the courtroom.

This is an overall problem of the film, but it becomes particularly obvious with the subplot of one of the prison guards (Hayes Mercure). In the very first scene we see him, he forces Bryan through an unlawful strip search with an insufferable grin. But the film takes care to show that watching Bryan at work, he is reformed, becoming softer with the prisoners, realizing that they are human, too. The initial humiliation is forgotten. Michael B. Jordan does his best to bring a sense of anger to his role despite of the script, and that too becomes very clear in this scene with its raw emotionality.

All of this is not to say that the film doesn’t hit home emotionally, because it certainly does. Watching their fight, the stories of the other prisoners – above all Herb (a fantastic Rob Morgan) and his harrowing final scene, but also that scene with Henry (J. Alphonse Nicholson) stood out in particular – I really cannot say that I wasn’t touched. But I think the film could have been stronger if it had gotten into the gritty bits a bit more and hadn’t tried to be so appeasing.

Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) in the public section of the courtroom.

Summarizing: Good.

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