There’s a scene where the Harvard-educated Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) confronts the racist Alabama lawman that arrested Walter McMillan (Foxx) for the murder of a white woman. The man sneers at this young, ambitious black lawyer and tells him that his fantasy of coming down to Alabama and teaching the big, bad racists a lesson isn’t gonna play out the way he hopes. Except that’s exactly what Just Mercy feels like – a fantasy full of archetypal characters and formulaic scenarios. It suffers from an issue that plagues many a ‘based on a true story’ films – it coming off as manufactured and invented.
Stevenson teams up with Eva Ansley (Larson) and the two tackle a system that’s legally, socially and culturally stacked against McMillan and other black prisoners. They face hostile or uncooperative law officials, harassment and abuse from locals and legal hurdles at every step, despite a shocking lack of evidence that McMillan committed any crime. Death row itself is little more than a plot point, and the focus remains firmly on the inequality and institutional bias of the justice system. As a result, Just Mercy is a film that flirts with tough ethical questions and moral dilemmas like that surrounding the death penalty, without truly engaging.
It does however succeed as a platform for good performances, and the cast certainly rises to the occasion. Foxx conveys the weariness of a man who’s decided to stop hoping, only to (eventually) put his faith in Stevenson. One of the film’s most powerful scenes occurs when McMillan is forced to return to his cell after learning of another major hurdle in the defense. Having finally allowed himself to hope he could be freed, going back to death row proves too much for him to bear and he lashes out; Foxx shines in an explosion of pent-up despair and frustration.
Michael B. Jordan delivers a solid performance as Stevenson, particularly during courtroom scenes. Melodramatic speeches to judge and jury, and confrontations with the opposition are so ubiquitous that there’s nothing really here that we haven’t seen a million times – but Jordan’s conviction and sincerity make it effectively rousing, if only in the moment. An unexpected standout is Tim Blake Nelson in a small, but crucial supporting role. His is a character that could easily have been a crude redneck caricature, but Nelson succeeds in finding nuance in his performance.
Just Mercy is like the comfort food of legal dramas – it’s not particularly original nor challenging, but it demonstrates good acting and a solid grasp of the formula.
Just Mercy comes out in cinemas January 17th, 2020.