Just Mercy (2020) Review
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE FOR JUSTICE
Within the many cinematic tales that have been produced, legal drama films have certainly been up there; hitting viewers with heated (and sometimes poignant) narratives that showcase a variety of multi-faceted viewpoints that deliver the truth and unmask the falsehood of the system. From the jail cell’s of a prison to the presiding courtrooms, legal dramas display plenty of human emotions of the individuals; projecting tales of injustice doing and who is really to blame for the wrong doings as well as demonstrating the views of the case on today’s society (i.e. social standing, race, religion, gender, etc.). Of course, Hollywood has produced many legal / courtroom tales that have demonstrated such cinematic level feature films, including several memorable ones like 1957’s 12 Angry Men, 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1992’s A Few Good Men, 1993’s Philadelphia, 1996’s Primal Fear, 2019’s Dark Waters, and many others. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures and director Destin Daniel Cretton present the latest legal drama endeavor with the film Just Mercy; based on the biographical memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson. Does the movie find strength within its story or does it lost within legal courtroom narrative?
After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) forgoes the standard opportunities of seeking employment from big and lucrative law firms; deciding to head to Alabama to defend those wrongfully commended, with the support of local advocate, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). One of his first, and most poignant, case is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx, who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl in the community, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and one singular testimony against him by an individual that doesn’t quite seem to add up. Bryan begins to unravel the tangled threads of McMillian’s case, which becomes embroiled in a relentless labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and overt unabashed racism of the community as he fights for Walter’s name and others like him.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Throughout my years of watching movies and experiencing the wide variety of cinematic storytelling, legal drama movies have certainly cemented themselves in dramatic productions. As I stated above, some have better longevity of being remembered, but most showcase plenty of heated courtroom battles of lawyers defending their clients and unmasking the truth behind the claims (be it wrongfully incarcerated, discovering who did it, or uncovering the shady dealings behind large corporations. Perhaps my first one legal drama was 1994’s The Client (I was little young to get all the legality in the movie, but was still managed to get the gist of it all). My second one, which I loved, was probably Primal Fear, with Norton delivering my favorite character role. Of course, I did see To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in the sixth grade for English class. Definitely quite a powerful film. And, of course, let’s not forget Philadelphia and want it meant / stand for. Plus, Hanks and Washington were great in the film. All in all, while not the most popular genre out there, legal drama films still provide a plethora of dramatic storytelling to capture the attention of moviegoers of truth and lies within a dubious justice.
Just Mercy is the latest legal crime drama feature and the whole purpose of this movie review. To be honest, I really didn’t much “buzz” about this movie when it was first announced (circa 2015) when Broad Green Productions hired the film’s director (Cretton) and actor Michael B. Jordan in the lead role. It was then eventually bought by Warner Bros (the films rights) when Broad Green Productions went Bankrupt. So, I really didn’t hear much about the film until I saw the movie trailer for Just Mercy, which did prove to be quite an interesting tale. Sure, it sort of looked like the generic “legal drama” yarn (judging from the trailer alone), but I was intrigued by it, especially with the film starring Jordan as well as actor Jamie Foxx. I did repeatedly keep on seeing the trailer for the film every time I went to my local movie theater (usually attached to any movie I was seeing with a PG rating and above). So, suffice to say, that Just Mercy’s trailer preview sort of kept me invested and waiting me to see it. Thus, I finally got the chance to see the feature a couple of days ago and I’m ready to share my thoughts on the film. And what are they? Well, good ones….to say the least. While the movie does struggle within the standard framework of similar projects, Just Mercy is a solid legal drama that has plenty of fine cinematic nuances and great performances from its leads. It’s not the “be all to end all” of legal drama endeavors, but its still manages to be more of the favorable motion pictures of these projects.
Just Mercy is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, whose previous directorial works includes such movies like Short Term 12, I Am Not a Hipster, and Glass Castle. Given his past projects (consisting of shorts, documentaries, and a few theatrical motion pictures), Cretton makes Just Mercy is most ambitious endeavor, with the director getting the chance to flex his directorial muscles on a legal drama film, which (like I said above) can manage to evoke plenty of human emotions within its undertaking. Thankfully, Cretton is up to the task and never feels overwhelmed with the movie; approaching (and shaping) the film with respect and a touch of sincerity by speaking to the humanity within its characters, especially within lead characters of Stevenson and McMillian. Of course, legal dramas usually do (be the accused / defendant and his attorney) shine their cinematic lens on these respective characters, so it’s nothing original. However, Cretton does make for a compelling drama within the feature; speaking to some great character drama within its two main lead characters; staging plenty of moments of these twos individuals that ultimately work, including some of the heated courtroom sequences.
Like other recent movies (i.e. Brian Banks and The Hate U Give), Cretton makes Just Mercy have an underlining thematical message of racism and corruption that continues to play a part in the US….to this day (incredibly sad, but true). So, of course, the correlation and overall relatively between the movie’s narrative and today’s world is quite crystal-clear right from the get-go, but Cretton never gets overzealous / preachy within its context; allowing the feature to present the subject matter in a timely manner and doesn’t feel like unnecessary or intentionally a “sign of the times” motif. Additionally, the movie also highlights the frustration (almost harsh) injustice of the underprivileged face on a regular basis (most notable those looking to overturn their cases on death row due to negligence and wrongfully accused). Naturally, as somewhat expected (yet still palpable), Just Mercy is a movie about seeking the truth and uncovering corruption in the face of a broken system and ignorant prejudice, with Cretton never shying away from some of the ugly truths that Stevenson faced during the film’s story.
Plus, as a side-note, it’s quite admirable for what Bryan Stevenson (the real-life individual) did for his career, with him as well as others that have supported him (and the Equal Justice Initiative) over the years and how he fought for and freed many wrongfully incarcerated individuals that our justice system has failed (again, the poignancy behind the film’s themes / message). It’s great to see humanity being shined and showcased to seek the rights of the wronged and to dispel a flawed system. Thus, whether you like the movie or not, you simply can not deny that truly meaningful job that Bryan Stevenson is doing, which Cretton helps demonstrate in Just Mercy. From the bottom of my heart…. thank you, Mr. Stevenson.
In terms of presentation, Just Mercy is a solidly made feature film. Granted, the film probably won’t be remembered for its visual background and theatrical setting nuances or even nominated in various award categories (for presentation / visual appearance), but the film certainly looks pleasing to the eye, with the attention of background aspects appropriate to the movie’s story. Thus, all the usual areas that I mention in this section (i.e. production design, set decorations, costumes, and cinematography) are all good and meet the industry standard for legal drama motion pictures. That being said, the film’s score, which was done by Joel P. West, is quite good and deliver some emotionally drama pieces in a subtle way that harmonizes with many of the feature’s scenes.
There are a few problems that I noticed with Just Mercy that, while not completely derailing, just seem to hold the feature back from reaching its full creative cinematic potential. Let’s start with the most prevalent point of criticism (the one that many will criticize about), which is the overall conventional storytelling of the movie. What do I mean? Well, despite the strong case that the film delves into a “based on a true story” aspect and into some pretty wholesome emotional drama, the movie is still structed into a way that it makes it feel vaguely formulaic to the touch. That’s not to say that Just Mercy is a generic tale to be told as the film’s narrative is still quite engaging (with some great acting), but the story being told follows quite a predictable path from start to finish. Granted, I never really read Stevenson’s memoir nor read anything about McMillian’s case, but then I still could easily figure out how the movie was presumably gonna end…. even if the there were narrative problems / setbacks along the way. Basically, if you’ve seeing any legal drama endeavor out there, you’ll get that same formulaic touch with this movie. I kind of wanted see something a little bit different from the film’s structure, but the movie just ends up following the standard narrative beats (and progressions) of the genre. That being said, I still think that this movie is definitely probably one of the better legal dramas out there.
This also applies to the film’s script, which was penned by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, which does give plenty of solid entertainment narrative pieces throughout, but lacks the finesse of breaking the mold of the standard legal drama. There are also a couple parts of the movie’s script handling where you can tell that what was true and what fictional. Of course, this is somewhat a customary point of criticism with cinematic tales taking a certain “poetic license” when adapting a “based on a true story” narrative, so it’s not super heavily critical point with me as I expect this to happen. However, there were a few times I could certainly tell what actually happen and what was a tad bit fabricated for the movie. Plus, they were certain parts of the narrative that could’ve easily fleshed out, including what Morrison’s parents felt (and actually show them) during this whole process. Again, not a big deal-breaker, but it did take me out of the movie a few times. Lastly, the film’s script also focuses its light on a supporting character in the movie and, while this made with well-intention to flesh out the character, the camera spotlight on this character sort of goes off on a slight tangent during the feature’s second act. Basically, this storyline could’ve been removed from Just Mercy and still achieve the same palpability in the emotional department. It’s almost like the movie needed to chew up some runtime and the writers to decided to fill up the time with this side-story. Again, it’s good, but a bit slightly unnecessary.
What does help overlook (and elevate) some of these criticisms is the film’s cast, which are really good and definitely helps bring these various characters to life in a theatrical /dramatic way. Leading the charge in Just Mercy is actor Michael B. Jordan, who plays the film’s central protagonist role of Bryan Stevenson. Known for his roles in Creed, Fruitvale Station, and Black Panther, Jordan has certain prove himself to be quite a capable actor, with the actor rising to stardom over the past few years. This is most apparent in this movie, with Jordan making a strong characteristically portrayal as Bryan; showcasing plenty of underlining determination and compelling humanity in his character as he (as Bryan Stevenson) fights for the injustice of those who’s voices have been silenced or dismissed because of the circumstances. It’s definitely a strong character built and Jordan seems quite capable to task in creating a well-acted on-screen performance of Bryan. Behind Jordan is actor Jamie Foxx, who plays the other main lead in the role, Walter McMillian. Foxx, known for his roles in Baby Driver, Django Unchained, and Ray, has certainly been recognized as a talented actor, with plenty of credible roles under his belt. His participation in Just Mercy is another well-acted performance that deserve much praise as its getting (even receiving an Oscar nod for it), with Foxx portraying Walter with enough remorseful grit and humility that makes the character quite compelling to watch. Plus, seeing him and Jordan together in a scene is quite palpable and a joy to watch.
The last of the three marquee main leads of the movie is the character of Eva Ansley, the director of operations for EJI (i.e. Stevenson’s right-handed employee / business partner), who is played by actress Brie Larson. Up against the characters of Stevenson and McMillian, Ansley is the weaker of the three main lead; presented as supporting player in the movie, which is perfectly fine as the characters gets the job done (sort of speak) throughout the film’s narrative. However, Larson, known for her roles in Room, 21 Jump Street, and Captain Marvel, makes less of an impact in the role. Her acting is fine and everything works in her portrayal of Eva, but nothing really stands in her performance (again, considering Jordan and Foxx’s performances) and really could’ve been played by another actress and achieved the same goal.
The rest of the cast, including actor Tim Blake Nelson (The Incredible Hulk and O Brother, Where Art Thou) as incarcerated inmate Ralph Meyers, actor Rafe Spall (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and The Big Short) as legal attorney Tommy Champan, actress Karan Kendrick (The Hate U Give and Family) as Minnie McMillan, Walter’s wife, actor C.J. LeBlanc (Arsenal and School Spirts) as Walter’s son, John McMillian, actor Rob Morgan (Stranger Things and Mudbound) as death role inmate Herbert Richardson, actor O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Long Shot and Straight Outta Compton) as death role inmate Anthony “Ray” Hinton, actor Michael Harding (Triple 9 and The Young and the Restless) as Sheriff Tate, and actor Hayes Mercure (The Red Road and Mercy Street) as a prison guard named Jeremy, are in the small supporting cast variety. Of course, some have bigger roles than others, but all of these players, which are all acted well, bolster the film’s story within the performances and involvement in Just Mercy’s narrative.
It’s never too late to fight for justice as Bryan Stevenson fights for the injustice of Walter McMillian’s cast against a legal system that is flawed in the movie Just Mercy. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest film takes a stance on a poignant case; demonstrating the injustice of one (and by extension those wrongfully incarcerated) and wrapping it up in a compelling cinematic story. While the movie does struggle within its standard structure framework (a sort of usual problem with “based on a true story” narrations) as well as some formulaic beats, the movie still manages to rise above those challenges (for the most part), especially thanks to Cretton’s direction (shaping and storytelling) and some great performances all around (most notable in Jordan and Foxx). Personally, I liked this movie. Sure, it definitely had its problem, but those didn’t distract me much from thoroughly enjoying this legal drama feature. Thus, my recommendation for the film is a solid “recommended”, especially those who liked the cast and poignant narratives of legality struggles and the injustice of a failed system / racism. In the end, while the movie isn’t the quintessential legal drama motion picture and doesn’t push the envelope in cinematic innovation, Just Mercy still is able to manage to be a compelling drama that’s powerful in its story, meaningful in its journey, and strong within its statement. Just like Bryan Stevenson says in the movie….” If we could look at ourselves closely…. we can change this world for the better”. Amen to that!
4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: January 10th, 2020
Reviewed On: January 25th, 2020
Just Mercy is 136 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets