Often in the current true crime boom, issues around criminal justice reform can get lost in all the stories about serial killers or compelling cases of wrongfully convicted men. Just Mercy features such a case but also puts it in the context of a broader problem in our justice system. This film does so with a moving true story and outstanding performances.
Based on the book by the same title, Just Mercy is the story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard-trained lawyer starting the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization determined to defend people on Death Row for wrongful or unjust convictions. Assisted by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Stevenson navigates the racially charged history behind the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man framed for the murder of 18-year-old Rhonda Morrison. After six years on Death Row, McMillian is doubtful that anyone can help him, but Stevenson believes that the only witness in the case, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) lied, he just cannot figure out why. As he investigates the case, Stevenson faces pressure from the local police and the District Attorney, Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall). O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Rob Morgan are also featured as McMillian’s fellow-inmates, Anthony Ray Hinton and Herbert Richardson.
Just Mercy does a wonderful job of adapting Stevenson’s story into something like a low-key legal thriller, focusing on the complications that arise from challenging a conviction in an emotional case, without losing sight of the bigger problem that motivates Stevenson’s work. The film also uses court testimony to allow Stevenson to make critical points without veering toward preachiness. There is a lot of nuance to the story that the film dives into. That said, I did find the film slow in places. Perhaps this perception is due to having read Stevenson’s book. Some of the suspense was taken from the story because I knew how things would turn out.
The performances are where Just Mercy really excels, though. As Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan brings a lot of charm and gravitas. His compassion for his clients and courage when he is threatened come through clearly. As Eva Ansley, Brie Larson is somewhat of a sidekick, but she provides some comedic relief and a strong sounding board for Jordan’s character. Jamie Foxx really delivers in some emotionally charged scenes and as the DA, Rafe Spall plays a complicated moral arch with shades of gray.
If this story interests you, there are several wonderful resources you can also check out. The book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, who has now gotten over 120 people off of Death Row, provides further thoughts from Stevenson—particularly on the relationship between justice and mercy—and more details on his early cases. Although he’s a secondary character in this movie, Anthony Ray Hinton did eventually work with Stevenson and was exonerated. His book, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row gives an inmate’s perspective on the story. For a quick look at Stevenson’s career, try Episode #45: Just Mercy of the Podcast Criminal.
Although sometimes slow-moving, Just Mercy is incredibly moving and provides a shocking look at the criminal justice system and the death penalty. I rate it 5/5 stars.
Just Mercy was written by Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton, who also directed. It runs 2 hours and 16 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets.