Just Mercy is a movie with a message. It is a moving, emotional, visceral film.
Based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who comes to Alabama to work on behalf of a death row inmate, the film succeeds because of the strong performances by its cast, especially its two leads. And because it handles the legal movie set pieces with restraint and grace. Just Mercy has its tense moments but does not overwhelm with melodrama.
It’s important to note that Just Mercy is rated PG-13, which means it is more likely to be seen by younger viewers than an R-rated version of this story would be. The film moves at a brisk pace and should keep moviegoers of all ages engaged.
Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) sits in Alabama’s Holman Prison sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard Law grad, comes south to examine the case. He discovers that testimony which was key to McMillian’s conviction was false.
In telling McMillian’s story, Just Mercy also presents those of others on death row. An execution is presented in stark detail, stopping just short of showing the actual event.
The cast includes Brie Larson as local woman Eva Ansley who helps Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative. (She previously worked with Just Mercy director Destin Daniel Cretton in the excellent 2013 film Short Term 12.) Tim Blake Nelson appears as prisoner Ralph Myers, a man whose damaged life is spared by giving false testimony. Rob Gordon plays McMillian’s death row neighbor Herbert Richardson in a heart-breaking performance. The ensemble of players who portrayed McMillian’s Monroeville, Alabama family and neighbors is a natural and likable crew.
Stevenson’s real life message and the message of the movie is that injustice is real, not just a plot in a novel written by a woman who was also from Monroeville, and it remains an issue today.
Stevenson has played a role in overturning numerous convictions around the U.S. He advocates against the death penalty.
Will this movie change minds and behaviors? We’ve seen dramas such as Twelve Angry Men that cause us to reconsider the true meaning of justice. Even that one episode of The Andy Griffith Show—where a guy played by Jack Nicholson(!) is accused of a crime and the only one who believes (correctly) that he’s innocent is Aunt Bea—informs us that what our natural prejudices might suggest may not always be accurate.
Just Mercy may be the perfect vehicle for Stevenson’s ideas to reach an broad audience beyond those who’ve read his book or attended his speaking engagements. That is, if people go see it.