“Just Mercy” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 136 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 25, 2019:
Based on an actual case and adapted from attorney Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” the new motion picture “Just Mercy” is the story of Walter McMillian, an independent tree cutter and pulpwood worker arrested and imprisoned in 1987 for a murder he did not commit. All evidence today points to the conclusion that McMillian was unjustly imprisoned mostly because of his race--he was a black man in a predominantly white community.
In November 1986, eighteen-year-old Ronda Morrison, a Caucasian dry cleaning clerk in Monroeville, Alabama, was murdered at her place of employment, shot several times from behind. Walter McMillian, an African-American man with no prior felony convictions, was arrested for the crime in June 1987 despite a solid alibi and a dozen or so witnesses who placed him elsewhere at the time of the crime. Instead of being placed in a holding cell at the local jail, McMillian was sent immediately to Alabama’s Death Row in Holman State Prison...and remained there for fifteen months, awaiting trial.
McMillian was eventually charged with Morrison's murder in a two-count indictment, and awaited trial still imprisoned on Death Row, as if conviction and a death sentence were a foregone conclusion. A motion for a change of venue was denied without reason, and after a trial which lasted only a day and and half, a jury of eleven whites and one African American convicted McMillian of murder and recommended life imprisonment. The judge, a man named Robert E. Lee Key, overruled the jury’s recommendation, and sentenced McMillian to death. McMillian spent the next six years on Death Row, awaiting execution.
In 1988, 28-year-old attorney and Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson formed the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center in nearby Montgomery, and took up the task of appealing McMillian’s case. Stevenson charged that the state suppressed evidence and denied McMillian due process of law, and demanded a new trial.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton from a screenplay adapted by Andrew Lanham and the director himself, “Just Mercy” turns out to be an earnest and well-balanced courtroom drama, augmented by solid performances from a talented cast led by Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson. The drama seeks to avoid scenes which might be expected in the wake of pictures from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962 through the somewhat similar fact-based “Brian Banks” in 2019, and eventually builds to a richly satisfying conclusion, but ultimately lacks the narrative punch that might’ve turned the picture into a modern classic.
Playing Stevenson, rising superstar Michael B. Jordan carries the picture’s heart as the young attorney taught since childhood to “always fight for the people who need the help most.” Jordan’s good in the role, but is never quite able to convey the sense of simmering moral indignation and righteousness conveyed in the Academy Award-winning performance of Gregory Peck in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Instead, Jordan maintains a sense of detachment and distance, even as his own civil rights are being violated by the bigoted lawmen of 1980s Alabama.
In a sort of extended cameo appearance disguised in a curly brown mop of hair as a legal assistant to Jordan and manager of his Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center, Brie Larson seemingly seeks to remind viewers that prior to her career as a Marvel Comics superstar Captain Marvel she was an Academy Award-winning actress in such hard-hitting dramatic fare as 2015’s “Room” and the 2017 adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ memoir “The Glass Castle.” Like Jordan, Larson’s performance is good...but it’s ultimately tough to get past the knowledge that it is a performance.
The best performance in “Just Mercy” is contributed by Jamie Foxx as the unjustly imprisoned Walter McMillian. Never relying on a sympathetic characterization or attempting to simulate pathos, Foxx plays McMillian as a man hardened by the legal system, physically beaten but not broken, no longer allowing himself the luxury of any dream other than to maintain his dignity and die with courage. Only after months of legal interactions with Jordan’s idealistic Stevenson do Foxx’ eyes betray an unfamiliar emotion: Hope. If Michael B. Jordan provides the heart of “Just Mercy,” the Academy Award-winning Jamie Foxx supplies its soul.
“Just Mercy” is receiving excellent reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 82% from Rotten Tomatoes and 68% from Metacritic. Audiences polled by CinemaScore assign a rare grade of A-plus to the picture. Released on Christmas Day in a limited pattern to only four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, the picture was expanded on January 10 into 2375 theaters across the United States and earned some $2.66 million at the box office, capturing fourth place in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind “1917” in first, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in second, and “Jumanji: The Next Level” in fourth.
Monroeville, Alabama, where “Just Mercy” is set--and where the actual events described in the picture took place--was the childhood home of authors Truman Capote and Harper Lee, and the inspiration for fictional Maycomb, Alabama in Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The connection to Lee’s novel and its film adaptation are referenced a number of times throughout “Just Mercy,” and provide a more heartbreaking coda to Lee’s iconic American drama than her own “Go Set a Watchman” did when published in 2015.
“Just Mercy” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and language, including some racial epithets.