Based on the book of the same name, Just Mercy is the latest film by The Glass Castle director Destin Daniel Cretton. It tells the story of African-American Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who was sentenced to death row in the late 1980s. Fresh out of Harvard, defence lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) takes on McMillan’s case while facing racial tension in Alabama.
From the outset, Just Mercy instils a sense of inequality and fear stemming from racial prejudice against African-Americans. Seen as irrelevant by Alabama officials, the film horrifying hints that their existence is enough to drastically affect the state justice system. For instance, the majority of death row prisoners in the film are African-Americans and any clashes towards them are instigated by smug police officers. Cretton and Andrew Lanham’s screenplay relays this injustice across to audiences while emphasising racial tension through harsh dialogue and interactions.
In addition, Cretton creates a community that has grown accustomed to a certain way of life. Unfortunately, it is one that celebrates its Caucasian citizens and ignores and intimidates African-Americans. As a result, the fact that someone is supporting an African-American man not only confronts their unnerving ways but provides optimism in a biased community. Cretton highlights this by showing the closeness of Walter’s friends and family, which offer a sharp comparison to the aloof authorities who are quick to dismiss Bryan.
Fresh out of college, Bryan has first-hand experiences of police brutality and hostility against African-Americans. Despite this, his endurance, openness and commitment to justice make him an endearing character. However, the fact that he is young, black and an ‘outsider’ prevent him from being taken seriously by the authorities. Jordan plays Stevenson with determination and maturity that highlights the character’s eloquence and education. In addition, Larson complements his performance as the loyal Eva Ansley, who – like Bryan – risks her own safety for justice.
Thanks to solid performances by Foxx, Nelson and Rob Morgan, Just Mercy also depicts how long-term imprisonment not only does it psychologically affects African-Americans but also Caucasians. Their respective circumstances highlight the authorities’ corrupt nature, making them victims of the increasingly one-sided legal system. In other words, there is no value in the truth when you have no power.
Overall, Just Mercy offers a compelling narrative with strong performances from Jordan, Larson and Foxx.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Runtime: 136 minutes