Just Mercy (2020) Review

Just Mercy Film Still

Just Mercy (2020)
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham
Starring: Micheal B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson

Based on the memoir of Bryan Steveson (Jordan), Just Mercy tells the tale of Steveson’s work with men on death row, and specifically the case Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian (Foxx), an African American man falsely imprisoned for the murder of a white woman.

There are a few issues with this film, but none of them are the cast. Everyone in this film is excellent, without exception. The actors, despite being well established stars, transform into the characters. Brie Larson is one cast member in particular who is so convincing you’ll be double checking the cast list after you’ve left the cinema. Comparatively, Foxx has been nominated for Screen Actors Guild award for best male in a supporting role for his role as Johnny D; a truly awards-focused performance that lives up to its high expectations. The characters in Just Mercy feel real and most of this can be attributed to the stellar performances of the highly respected names that make up the cast; a number of whom, Larson and Foxx included, better the written material tenfold. 

The story of Just Mercy explores the complexities of morality, the key theme of which being; that just because someone does something bad one time doesn’t make them a bad person. It shows the all too relevant hypocrisy of the American legal system.

One of the issues with presenting a true story, is that it is just that… a true story.

The picture too often falls back on outdated tropes of “true to life” movies; we see characters looking through piles of papers, through heavy legal documents and leather bound books, highlighting and circling important things – the montages could have been lifted from almost any film of this type for the previous 80 years. The last time this seemed relevant and interesting was in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight back in 2015.

It’s presented as if a lacklustre means of moving the plot forward; a sort of excuse for the narrative that is lazy and, most importantly for us, tiresome – Michael B. Jordan finds something important; he has a look on his face; Brie Larson asks ‘what is it?’; he tells us (without even a hint of attempting to cover the exposition). This would be okay if it wasn’t so central to the movie that characters get important information for the case in brown envelopes and the plot demands that we just wait to be told – several movies over the past few years have dealt with this trope in inventive visual ways, leaving Just Mercy feeling dated. 

There is a clear attempt to create tension in this film, such as the trailer’s key hook ‘What you are doing is going to make a lot of people unhappy’. The issue is that what the character is doing doesn’t make a lot of people unhappy, it doesn’t even ruffle a few feathers. In fact, the only character to suffer any kind of negative consequence is Rafe Spall’s Tommy Champan, an almost stereotypical “southerner” played  by a Brit and painted with broad, racially motivated strokes. 

The biggest disappointment of the film’s lacklustre presentation is that the true story behind Just Mercy is an important one to hear about. The real-life struggle of wrongly imprisoned African American people is one of the greatest injustices of contemporary America, and the film importantly highlights that, albeit in a manner much less effective than the likes of If Beale Street Could Talk or Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. Perhaps the story of Just Mercy would have been better suited to being an Asif Kapadia style documentary?


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