Legal drama Just Mercy is vital viewing

Of American’s 50 states, capital punishment is legal in over half of them. It’s probably something most of us haven’t even contemplated recently but upon watching Just Mercy I was confronted by its cruel reality and of the effect that a death sentence has not only on the individual but also their communities, the legal justice system and society as a whole. 

Just Mercy is based on the 2014 memoir of Bryan Stevenson, a well known American lawyer and social justice activist who’s still very much active today. The story follows Stevenson’s (Michael B Jordan) early career as a passionate and newly qualified Harvard Law graduate who’s determined to use his profession to help some of the most disadvantaged incarcerated African Americans – those on death row. He heads south to Alabama where he meets inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) known as Johnny D. He has been condemned to death for the 1986 murder of a young white woman Ronda Morrison. It was a famous case at the time thanks to a profile on 60 Minutes and he most evidently didn’t commit the crime. McMillian’s trial and details of his conviction are shocking, to say the least.

Johnny D is reluctant at first to pursue any appeal as his trust of lawyers is understandably non-existent and his family has already been bled dry financially through previous action. Undeterred, Stevenson doesn’t give up and visits McMillian’s friends and family in his hometown and sees the obvious poverty and disadvantage faced by the people living there. Spurred on by this obvious injustice Stevenson, having set up the Equal Justice Initiative with co-founder Eva Ansley, sets to work to clear Johnny D’s name and prove his innocence whilst the powers that be want the case to remain firmly closed.

Although this is all highly dramatic legal stuff, director Destin Daniel Cretton has created an intensely personal film showing human stories and relationships while highlighting the very real threatening presence of racism and corruption for all involved. The fact that Monroeville, Alabama is Harper Lee’s hometown only adds to the painful truth of what has happened to Johnny. 

The characters are given the time and dialogue to grow with a devastatingly powerful script. Single lines are easily able to bring you to tears while they are delivered so authentically by the likes of Jamie Foxx and his co-stars Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson Jr – who play fellow death row inmates. Brie Larson’s supporting role as Eva Ansley is a complementary pairing with Michael B Jordan and her performance is perfectly pitched as an equally determined seeker of justice. 

Foxx and Jordan give brilliant performances that really should have seen them get an Oscar nod. Foxx delivers one of the most powerful cinematic monologues I’ve seen and the pair develop great chemistry during the journey of the film. Morgan shines during his heartwrenching scenes and does so with tremendous heart, poise and respect. Even with these heavy-hitting actors, Just Mercy still manages to remain a small and understated film so that the real issues take centre stage, allowing the audience to be fully confronted with the real horrors of capital punishment and the system that surrounds it.

Just Mercy is simply vital viewing. Out in NZ cinemas from 23 January. 

Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar.

5 stars