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The facts of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan’s Alabama murder case are simple: Dozens of people could confirm his alibi—he was nowhere near the scene of the murder—and the only eye witness was a convicted felon coerced by the police. But, in a country which upholds institutional racism, McMillan remained on death row for years. Just Mercy is a stirring, persuasive legal procedural about the true-life fight for McMillan’s exoneration, and director Destin Daniel Cretton skillfully conveys its inherent frustration.
When McMillan (Jamie Foxx) first meets Harvard-educated lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), he’s deeply skeptical. Lawyers had burned McMillan before, and he doesn’t want to get his hopes up. But eventually McMillan accepts the help, and the two get to work. The screenplay, co-written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, shows just how much the pair are up against. Up until this case, no one ever left Alabama’s death row alive, and Stevenson’s team faced regular intimidation and threats.
It’s refreshing to see Jamie Foxx, who’s recently been hosting the Fox game show Beat Shazam, in a complicated, meaty role like this again. He conveys a heartbreaking mix of anger and resignation as a victim of a system designed to abuse him. In his scenes with fellow death row inmates we see his full humanity, and McMillan does his best to find camaraderie in unlikely places.
While the scenes of McMillan in prison are where Just Mercy finds its heart, most of the drama follows Stevenson and his legal motions. It presents Stevenson as a selfless idealist, the sort who can earn the trust of McMillan’s family and give a stirring courtroom argument. The film nearly veers into hagiography, but Jordan is a convincing lead man, and a selfless idealist is just the sort of person who could eventually free someone like McMillan. Brie Larson also appears as Stevenson’s legal aide, and while her presence serves to suggest that not every white person in Alabama is a racist, Jordan is always the film’s center.
The film makes no attempt to “solve” racism, but instead portrays it realistically, and that’s what makes it so compelling: The district attorney uses passive-aggressive redirection to hide his thinly veiled bigotry. Just Mercy suggests that overwhelming evidence is only the first step to exonerating a black man in Alabama. The white people in power must also be humiliated, both in the courtroom and the court of public opinion, until they relent out of fear of being seen as a pariah. Cretton’s simple, unassuming style serves that sense of outrage, as does his curiosity about human nature. Like his earlier film Short Term 12, he has a way of letting little character moments convey a lot about who these people are.
Just Mercy is not the only film about death row that opens this week. Director Chinonye Chukwu’s dark drama Clemency also follows an inmate as he awaits his execution. Although both films depict state-sponsored killing, Clemency is not based on a true story, and focuses more on the queasy truths of how inmates suffer and the psychological toll their pain takes on them. Just Mercy shies away from grim realities simply because its purpose is to inspire, not provoke. That does not make it a weaker film. Since the justice system and good ol’ boys are already so biased against them, death row inmates and lawyers like Stevenson cannot function without a sense of hope.
Just Mercy opens Friday in theaters everywhere.
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