Beyond simply entertaining viewers, films can deliver a message. When a director has something to say along with the story it can add to the overall value of the art form. Just Mercy succeeds in this capacity, as Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton guides the audience through a well-executed civil rights period piece that carries important themes that can resonate with us all.
Based on a true story, the film follows Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan), a recent graduate of Harvard Law School who works as a civil rights lawyer in 1987 Alabama for the Equal Justice Initiative. Along with the help of local advocate, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), they set out to overturn wrongful convictions of death row inmates, and focusing their attention on exonerating Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
The strength of the movie lies within its great performances and strong message. The entire ensemble produces riveting work, lifting the quality from what would otherwise be a generic, paint-by-numbers social issues drama. Michael B Jordan carries the majority of the load, delivering a quiet, yet emotional portrayal of the real-life civil rights hero, Bryan Stevenson. Less is more in regards to Jordan’s performance, as he internalizes his emotions, enduring racial struggles as he goes about fighting to institute change. The interactions between Jordan and Rafe Spall (who portrays the District Attorney) are the highlights of the film. It’s solid leading man work, but the supporting players are the ones who truly shine in this story. Tim Blake Nelson and Rob Morgan are wonderful as convicts, both impressively adopting speaking patterns and mannerisms unique to the real-life characters they portray. Jamie Foxx is superb in his own right as well, serving as the emotional throughline of the story. Brie Larson does her best, but the Oscar winning actress is disappointingly wasted here, being cast into an extremely underwritten character.
As can be the case with many true stories, a lot of ground is being covered, resulting in some pacing issues. The dialogue is stale for the most part and the screenplay lags at times, but the story is able to rise above these faults due to its heartfelt premise. Cretton is showcasing a man’s journey to try and make the world a better place, while also shining a light on capital punishment, poverty, and racism, all important topics that remain relevant in today’s society. He makes an interesting choice with the cinematography, shooting most of the scenes in close up fashion, getting the viewer closer to these characters. It’s distracting at first, but creates a more personal feel to the story.
Overall, Just Mercy is a solid civil rights drama that is hindered by a weak screenplay, yet elevated with a powerful message and great performances. The entire cast brings their “A” game, which combines with moments of greatness and a strong conclusion to generate a well-done product possessing a must-hear real life tale. I give it 3 out of 5 Stars and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about an important topic in our nation’s history.