January 19, 2020
Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan excel in this understated true-life story of US lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s battle to free an Alabama man wrongfully convicted of murder
Just Mercy review – death row drama with quiet power
Adapted from activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, subtitled “A Story of Justice and Redemption”, Destin Daniel Cretton’s timely legal drama is, for the most part, as admirably understated as its subject. Largely eschewing dramatic speechifying in favour of quieter contextualisation, it offers a movingly matter-of-fact account of one man’s struggle to lend voice to the silenced, dispossessed inmates of death row. As with the book, the film frames its wider story of poverty, prejudice and institutional racism within an infamous miscarriage of justice – the case of Walter McMillian, an African American condemned to death for a crime that he evidently did not commit. Yet as the intelligently accessible script by Cretton and Andrew Lanham makes clear, McMillian’s case is not the whole picture; rather, it is a totemic example of how a socioeconomic system forged within the furnace of slavery still bears the shackles of its past.
We open in 1987, in Monroe County, Alabama, where pulpwood tree feller McMillian (an almost unrecognisably unimposing Jamie Foxx) is arrested for the murder of white teenager Ronda Morrison. Billboards boast about Monroeville being Harper Lee’s hometown (“Check out the Mockingbird museum,” says Rafe Spall’s district attorney, “it’s one of the great civil rights landmarks of the south”), but the spirit of Atticus Finch does not appear to haunt these halls of justice. By the time the Harvard-educated Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) starts defending death row inmates, McMillian – aka Johnny D – is awaiting execution with little hope of reprieve and even less faith in lawyers. Yet as co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Stevenson is determined to make a difference, and despite his would-be client’s initial dismissals, he makes the journey out to McMillian’s impoverished old neighbourhood to meet the friends and family who know he couldn’t have done it.
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