Cinematic Releases: Just Mercy (2019) - Reviewed

In 2014, Equal Justice Initiative founder/executive director, Harvard law graduate, American attorney and NYU professor Bryan Stevenson published the memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption to enormous critical and commercial success.  Winning the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and selected by Time Magazine as one of the 10 Best Books of Nonfiction, Just Mercy told the story of Walter McMillian, an African-American manager of his own arborist company who finds himself framed and convicted for the murder of a white woman in 1986 by the Monroe County, Alabama sheriff and sentenced to death.  That is, until Stevenson ventured down to Alabama fresh out of law school and with the help of Eva Ansley set up the Equal Justice Initiative and began providing legal services to inmates on death row, McMillian among them. 

Now five years later, the story has been made into a film by Hawaiian filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton with Creed actor Michael B. Jordan in the role of Bryan Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian.  Brie Larson appears in a supporting role as Eva Ansley who helped build the foundation of the Equal Justice Initiative law firm but largely this is a prison/court-procedural largely led by strong performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.  A David vs. Goliath tale of injustice and a corrupt legal system with Stevenson steadily pushing uphill with his care for McMillian, it’s an often tense and moving story aided beautifully by the two central cast members.

Akin to The Hurricane with Denzel Washington and Marshall with Chadwick Boseman, which told the story of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, it’s a civil rights movie that’s been told countless times before but still works as a compelling drama and an actor’s film.  Both Jordan and Foxx are really good though arguably Rob Morgan steals the show with his supporting turn as death row prisoner Herbert Richardson.  Watch his scenes where he comes to terms with his impending execution and try and tell me this isn’t one of the great supporting performances of the year!  Also worth noting is Tim Blake Nelson who I’m convinced will spend the rest of his career playing a redneck.

Visually and sonically it’s a handsome looking and sounding film with graceful cinematography by Brett Pawlak who intersperses classily composed medium shots of the actors in the prison with documentary-esque shots of the residents of Alabama during an early montage sequence.  The moody and soulful score by Joel P. West provides a rich southern flavor to the proceedings, frequently shifting between melancholic low-key jazz and spoken word gospel.  Moreover, it’s a subtle score that never veers towards becoming bombastic or overproduced.

Currently Mr. Cretton is slated to direct an upcoming MCU film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but until then, the writer-director has fashioned a compelling and ultimately moving drama of one man fighting against a system colluding to keep an innocent man imprisoned and eventually killed out of still-ongoing prejudices in the Deep South.  Though most will know the outcome looking up the film’s subject matter, what’s here is a well-acted and directed civil rights drama well worth your time featuring multiple gifted performances from some of the industry’s finest actors working today!

--Andrew Kotwicki