It’s no secret that the justice system in the United States is a mess like no other. However, the odds of navigating it and coming out unscathed — if at all — are worse for the Black community. Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and founder/executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, witnessed just how brutal it is, as he worked tirelessly to free Walter McMillian from death row, after being arrested for a murder he did not commit. Just Mercy tells that story.
Based on the book of the same name by Stevenson and co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Just Mercy is a film not to be taken lightly. There are scenes that are difficult to watch and moments that will either make one tear up or shout in anger. The film does not hold back on showing the difficulties that McMillian and his fellow inmates experience, nor does it shy away from the horrific situations Stevenson is placed in for pursuing this case. The fact that Cretton was willing to go that far is commendable directing on his part.
With so much seriousness in this film, it’s hard to think that there was any room leftover for a few humorous moments. And yet, there were some, and they came off so effectively that they made for much enjoyed — and needed — nuggets to pause and laugh. This particularly goes for the scene where Stevenson speaks with McMillian’s family and friends about where he was on the day of the murder.
Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx as Stevenson and McMillian were so effectively powerful in their performances. Their dynamic onscreen is strong and their interactions flow naturally. Individually, they carry their roles with purpose and a deep understanding that they’re bringing to life a story that is still just as timely today.
Brie Larson also appears in the film as Stevenson’s colleague, Eva Ansley. Had someone else written and directed this film, it’s easy to see how she could have been portrayed as a white savior-type. But together with Larson’s performance and Cretton leading the way, she doesn’t steal the spotlight, and that is a huge plus.
The only aspect about Just Mercy that seems to fall a little flat is the development of Stevenson. While it’s made known throughout the film that he comes from a neighborhood similar to many of his clients and is privileged to call Harvard his alma mater, there isn’t a ton of insight into his motivation and his backstory beyond what he relays to others. The comment that one character makes about him being married to his work pretty much sums him up in a nutshell. Although this film is not necessarily about him, it still would have been nice to learn more about who he is as a person.
Otherwise, Just Mercy is a film that is an absolute must-watch — now more than ever. In a time where the justice system continues to fail the people living in this country and where the Black community still live in fear of being arrested — if not worse — for just living their lives, this film is a sober reminder/wake-up call of these realities and how change is an absolute, overdue must.
In effectively telling this story of a real-life superhero who works to help his community, one can only imagine the integrity and momentum to be embedded as Cretton next takes on Marvel superhero Shang-Chi, in the upcoming film of the same name.