Directed By Destin Saniel Cretton
Starring – Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
The Plot – A powerful and thought-provoking true-story which follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan might have had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson) One of his first, and most incendiary, cases is that of Walter McMillian (Foxx) who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds-and the system-stacked against them.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
– Authenticity. One of the aspects of a real life biopic that almost immediately takes me out of believability is the diminishing detail in casting similarities, that often make me wonder if the casting agent has ever seen a picture or video of the story’s central character. For “Just Mercy”, this definitely isn’t a problem, as the casting seems air-tight in turning back the clock to these characters’ younger days. Foxx as Walter is easily the most evident depiction, on everything from facial structure to skin tone complexity, and cements him as the ideal candidate to bring to life this man’s terrifying story. Jordan and Larson are equally effective, thanks in part to tweaks within their visual appearances like beards and hairstyles that better immerse them in the visual spectrum of their respective real life counterparts. Without question, though, Tim Blake Nelson as the story’s key witness is unnervingly resonant right down to facial paralyzation and deep Southern accent that makes the character virtually marble-mouthed by its striking consistency.
– Dual narrative. Without question, the film’s most advantageous quality is its choice to craft two simultaneous narratives between Bryan and Walter, which better elaborate the struggles of their confines within the American Judicial system. For the former, it means knocking down the barriers of hundreds of years of deep south social racism, an adversity still as prominent in modern day as it ever was at the beats of this early 90’s setting. For Walter, it’s obviously the weight instilled from being innocent of a crime that has kept him vulnerably on death row for six years. The film’s dedication to both of these plots are equally riveting, and both help to flesh out a feeling of grand scale helplessness that pulls on many minorities to give up long before they ever have their day in court. The script’s ability to rely on both heavily not only keeps things fresh for the progression of the pacing, but also offers an unnerving contrast which illustrates things being as barbaric on the outside as they are behind bars.
– Front-and-center. This is seen through the intimate shot compositions that cinematographer Brett Pawlak rests on his shoulders, but does anything but rest when it comes to incorporating sorrowful style to accommodate the story’s scintillating substance. Pawlak uses a lot of close-ups and tight-knitted confinement to colorfully illustrate the claustrophobia of prison circumstance, all the while flaring a visual gimmick of facial resonation, which demands stronger dramatic depth from a gifted ensemble cast. At times during the film, I felt like a cell mate to those who are unfortunate enough to be locked up behind its concrete walls, soaking up as much about the devastating conditions as one could be expected from meaningful shots. It grants an immersive experience in setting that feels as close to prison as I or any other audience member would want to absorb, and does so without the brutality, raping, or seedy surroundings that other films need to hammer its atmosphere home.
– Shining lesson. For my money, the film’s moral ambition seems to be cemented on the value of hope, and why keeping it through the most difficult of times is ones only inspiration to keep moving forward. In this movie, that’s seen obviously through the eyes of Walter, but also in his surrounding jail mates, who feel so defeated until Bryan shows up in front of them. Similar to Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption”, Bryan too represents the possibilities of hope, in all of its ambitious and sometimes disappointing remorse. It’s hard for these men to open up to something that has been distanced from them for so long, but when it appears, they can’t help but feel overcome with it being the only option besides death to their unfortunate plight. It proves that it shows up sometimes in the least likely of scenarios, but when it does, it’s important to always reach for it, because it’s not always something that is inevitable.
– One lonely walk. Without question, my favorite scene in the film, and one that will have the greatest chance of resonating permanency to audiences that see it, is the final walk of one convict who is asked to be brave in his final hour. Not only is the audio technicalities of the scene perfectly rendered, with an eerie song about regret being chosen by the inmate who walks to its chords, but also inspiring for the voices of other inmates who make their presences felt when it matters the most. These men remind him that he’s anything but alone when it matters the most, and establishes a brotherhood between them that any of them could fall back on when no one else is there. It’s inspiring to say the least. This scene showcases the death penalty with an unabashed honesty in detail that very few other similar scenes in film capture, and above all else it’s surprisingly echoing to our conscience despite how little of it is actually seen.
– Guidance. This is established in the performances department through Cretton’s direction, which surprisingly garners restraint more than anything in bringing to life many indulging captures from this ensemble. Seeing as to how this is a courtroom drama, it would be easy for the film to get lost in shouting matches and spiritual diatribes, that often cloud a movie’s narrative progression in other genre sharing films, but “Just Mercy” values facial acting more than anything. In this regard, Jordan and especially Foxx are the stoves that burn coal in temperatures of rage and anguish, that both characters deal with constantly. We feel like they are minutes from blowing their lids on the frustration that practically envelopes them whole from the systematic racism of it all. In addition to that exceptionally gifted duo, the supporting cast is nearly equally as transfixing, even with half of the time to captivate. I mentioned Nelson’s dedication to craft earlier, but beyond that it’s the sorrowful emptiness of Rob Morgan, or the strong foundation of O’Shea Jackson Jr once again stealing scenes, that rounded out opportunity on every corner of this collective cast, and really elevated the material, that sometimes grew stagnant because of its ages old conventions.
– Fact of fiction. One interestingly ironic twist to the film’s setting is that it serves as the inspiration for Harper Lee’s legendary novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and this aspect of importance is sarcastically pleasant for the film, considering this is anywhere but the Civil Rights forefront that exists in between the pages of a novel. The contrast between the town citizens using the novel as a crutch to override an established prejudice in their law and lifestyles, offers a startling realism that weighs heavily in the mentality of the film’s town patrons, and presents food for thought in the concepts of appearances being deceiving. If this is a sequel to such a book, it proves that very little has changed since Atticus Finch, and the film’s unavoidable message of urgency for a world still desperate for much growth renders it every bit volatile as the one presented in a novel from sixty years ago.
– Limitations. Knowing as much about the guys portrayed in the film as aI do, I can’t help but feel this story dropped the ball on the more compelling story that was just one door down. O’Shea Jackson Jr’s character Anthony Hinton spent 30 years on Death Row, one of the longest stakes in American prison history, only to be found innocent by the case constructed by Stevenson. That’s not to be disrespectful to the focus deserving of Walter’s story, but rather that Jackson’s character should’ve played a much bigger part in this story dealing with the injustices of the judicial system. These men are brought in occasionally to offer their commentary on Bryan’s arrival, but it’s nothing that is nearly ever deserving of its place in the legacy of this heralded lawyer’s reputable record.
– Ridiculous props. There are only two in the film, but one of these, the tremendously fat moustache seen in Walter’s early days before incarceration, is so inordinately presented in size and facial capacity that it can’t help but bring laughs each time it pops into frame. If prosthetics are done exceptionally, they can often exist in a scene without feeling like the attention-stealing focus that they unceremoniously garner. That isn’t the case here, as it’s easily the worst prop to a scene that I have seen since Bradley Cooper cradled a fake baby in “American Sniper”. The only other prop is Walter’s wig, which is smoothly representing the hip hop rebirth of the early 90’s. Its success in believability, especially cradled with that of the real life person’s rendering, makes the moustache all the more alarming because of its lack of subtlety. If he wore glasses and a banana nose it would be less awkward.
– Cliches of the subgenre. Being that this is a story centering around racism in the south, there’s obviously familiarity in the screenplay and presentation that would feel outdated and redundant if this were 1998. Because of this, we can expect a few things; a cartoon antagonist, a call in the middle of the night to our protagonist’s house, threatening his family and friends, a meandering soundtrack full of gospel favorites, and an inevitability in resolution, that can be seen coming from a mile away. It’s remotely different because this is based on a real life true story, but so much of the factual events are tweaked for a cinematic rendering, reminding us how little of originality there is for a story that has been hammered into the ground fifty times. If not for the gifts of the exceptional cast, the predictability of the film would overwhelm it into mediocre waters.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-