Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Just Mercy

Although it’s too long and tries a little hard, this legal drama from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s is worth it for the performances, and a cautious but palpable sense of moral outrage.

Drawn from Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, it’s an absorbing epic that touches on hot-button issues surrounding race and justice, as well as the always-emotive topic of capital punishment and what exactly the electric chair does (even if Cretton understandably looks away when the thing is actually used).

Michael B. Jordan (on his way to being a big star after the first Black Panther and the Creed films) is Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson, who we first see back in 1989 travelling to scary old Alabama to fight for those who cannot afford legal representation. He knows the dangers and, when he gets there (and yes, they really filmed in ‘Alabammy’ too), he finds himself in several threatening situations even before he interviews a single prison inmate.

Meeting a group of prisoners, predominantly black, many apparently innocent of their crimes and all in dire need of proper legal assistance, Bryan becomes especially involved with attempting to reopen the case surrounding Walter McMillan a.k.a. ‘Johnny D’ (quietly played by Jamie Foxx), who’s on Death Row for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison and listens to Stevenson’s initial promises, but pretty much tells him not to bother. Johnny’s heard it all before.

Bryan persists though, with help from a team that includes indefatigable psychologist Eva Ansley (director Cretton’s regular collaborator Brie ‘Captain Marvel’ Larson), and by the time he starts pressuring new district attorney Tommy Chapman (Londoner Rafe Spall with a convincing accent), he’s also dealing with bomb threats, police harassment and worse.

With a welcome lack of political grandstanding (even filibustering) and award-friendly speechifying, this does tend to go on a bit, but there’s still an excellent cast to distract you, including O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube’s son) as supposed murderer Anthony Ray Hinton and Rob Morgan as the haunted, PTSD-suffering Herbert Richardson, who really is a killer, yet should be in a psychiatric facility. But the cops and the legal system don’t care for such luxuries: all they want is a scapegoat, and someone to fry, even if that leaves the guilty party free to roam the streets. A memorable moment where Bryan is told that he shouldn’t think of the Alabaman powers-that-be as a bunch of “corrupt Southern racists” is striking because, well, that’s exactly what they are.

Mercy indeed.

Reviewer Rating

Just Mercy (M) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

See Profile

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox