Just Mercy (2020) is an American crime film based on a true story and adapted from the book of the same title. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, this film stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) moves to Alabama to work alongside Eva Ansley (Larson) to help those unfairly placed on Death Row. There, they discover Walter McMillan (Foxx), a man they believe to be innocent and it becomes their mission to try and make Walter a free man.
This is a film that could have felt bland and dull if not for the performances given by the entire cast, but especially of Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. They both manage to give heartbreaking performances, particularly Jordan who shows a raw emotion to his character in a role that many would perform quite flat otherwise. He gives the character of Bryan power and substance, something that helps create impact and leaves you believing in his motives and siding with him completely.
There have been many films of this sort of storyline in the world of film and television, and yet this one feels a little bit more grounded. I particularly like the fact that this film tackles some darker yet also important subplots, whether it was about the town’s perspective of the lawyer helping those in Death Row to the other inmates he is trying to help. The subplot involving Herbert Richardson shows another aspect of the law that is faulty and adds a message that those who perhaps commit crimes maybe deserve to be listened to and taken care of instead of immediately dismissed and sentenced to death.
This film is incredibly heavy to watch and there is hardly a laugh to be had in this film. I felt like this was a mature way to take this film though as it is a story that needs to be taken seriously and it is telling a true story, so respect is needed when tacking a subject matter like this. It can get overwhelming at times, but the emotional beats are spread apart to give you time to process what you just witnessed. There is one heartbreaking scene in the middle of the film involving Herbert that is beautifully handled and left me shaken up for the rest of the film.
One unique aspect that I appreciated about this film is the multiple references to the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It is such an iconic piece of work that most audiences members will easily understand the irony of all of the lawyers and police officers being proud of living in the area where Harper Lee was born and raised. Both this film and the classic novel deal with the same themes of racism in the justice system, and the set-up really helps identify what sort of officers and lawyers Bryan would have to face when dealing with the law system in Alabama.
There are several issues I had with the film though, and most of it has to come down to the screenplay. Despite the strong character development of the male characters, I found the writing of the one central female character of Eva Ansley to be quite weak. She has one compelling moment, caused by the events of her working on the side of the Death Row inmates, but that interesting storyline never goes any further. She does not feel like her own person, just a side character of Bryan. Brie Larson does as much as she can with the character but Eva never reaches her full potential.
If you are not a fan of the typical courtroom movie or storylines of racism in the law, this film probably will not change your opinion of that. There are still so many moments that feel repetitive to other films and storylines and characters that feel cliché to the genre. It does play out as a typical Oscar-bait film, with some over-dramatic crying sequences, scenes that feel exaggerated and dialogue that feels unnatural. However, if you are a fan of courtroom movies and television shows, this film should be right up your street.
What should have been a decent or mediocre film is enhanced by the captivating performances and the strong message that is told right from the start of the film. Michael B. Jordan deserves to get so much more work from this and Jamie Foxx continues to prove how versatile and insanely good he can be in any film. It is a hard watch, but one that I would recommend to check out regardless.
Have you had a chance to check out Just Mercy yet? What did you make of this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.