It seems unfair to say that the outcome of Just Mercy feels like a foregone conclusion, because in truth the film tells a remarkable story. Sometime in the 1980s, a fresh-faced Harvard Law School graduate named Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan in the movie) arrived in Alabama determined to provide legal counsel to prisoners on Death Row, many of whom had never had proper legal representation. He took on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), also known as Johnnie D, a Monroeville pulpwood worker who had been convicted, under exceedingly dubious circumstances, of the grisly murder of a teenage dry cleaner clerk and then sent to Death Row despite the fact that his jury had imposed life imprisonment. The appeals process took years, and at one point Stevenson had to resort to a 60 Minutes segment to attract outside attention to the case.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is based on the non-fiction book called Just Mercy, by the real-life Bryan Stevenson, and at times it feels like the work of a compassionate advocate rather than a dramatist, but that’s not always a bad thing, at least in this case. One could easily see something far more sensationalistic being made from this material — the violence brought center-stage, the outrages pushed to roaring extremes, the many potential urgent twists and turns of a legal case with an execution looming made extra-twisty, extra-turn-y, extra-urgent. I don’t know what liberties Cretton and his co-writer Andrew Lanham have taken, but their treatment feels honest and sober, a precise and patient accounting rather than a righteous protest.
That’s not to say that the film is dry and passionless. Rather, it gives its actors space to find their characters within the relevant story (as opposed to finding it within extraneous narrative elements, like romantic entanglements or other subplots): In Bryan’s first interactions with Johnnie D, you can feel Jordan’s anxious, awkward energy clashing with Foxx’s laconic exhaustion, and you understand the insurmountable nature of the task at hand, as each man seems lost in his own form of frustration. Foxx’s Johnnie D, already a broken man by the time Bryan meets him, has made a kind of corrosive peace with Death Row; he bonds with the men in the neighboring cells, who are all aware that they will share the same fate, and who have shut themselves off from any thoughts of freedom. One of the men, Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), doesn’t even pretend to innocence; he freely admits to the murder he’s been convicted of, though it’s also clear, through his halting, strained speech, that the post-traumatic stress he endured in Vietnam has played a part in destroying his mind.
Just Mercy has its share of conveniences and blind spots. Brie Larson plays Eva Ansley, Bryan’s partner in a grass-roots organization called the Equal Justice Initiative, and while Ansley was a key figure in the real-life case, having a movie star play her, only to then sideline the character, feels like a Hollywood distraction. Still, these are mostly minor missteps. Not unlike Todd Haynes’s recent Dark Waters, Just Mercy doesn’t mess too much with a familiar template, opting instead to focus on the very real human story at its center as a way of revitalizing the socially conscious legal drama.
Maybe that’s because, for all their predictability, such stories retain their power. (In fact, maybe they retain their power because of their predictability.) While Johnnie D wastes away in prison, Bryan attempts to track down the details of the original case, sparse as they were, while also dealing with the racism of this community. He’s stopped and intimidated by the cops, humiliated by prison guards, treated dismissively wherever he goes. None of these are moves new to tales of injustice in the South; they’re practically requirements by this point. But Jordan has a great face for doubt and inner conflict. There’s a quizzical, nervous quality to him — which is also why when he does action movies, he’s so wonderfully unpredictable — and you can sense his devotion to justice clashing with his genuine fear. Part of the story here lies in Bryan’s gradual awakening to the fact that the problems he seeks to solve are ultimately not about individual cases or glitches in a noble process, but about a pervasive climate of fear and inequality born of centuries of repression. Just Mercy doesn’t try to hammer that point home, but rather allows the viewer to absorb the message through the humanity of the story and the performances.