Freeing wrongfully convicted people is an excellent theme for fiction as well as for documentaries. Think of John Grisham’s latest novel “The Guardians,” in which Quincy Miller, a black man, is convicted of a murder that has no witnesses and no apparent motive. Languishing in jail for 21 years, he has his case picked up by Collen Post of the Guardian organization, which can accept only a small percentage of cases that come to its attention. There are people who don’t want Miller freed: his lawyer’s life is in danger. In Ton Shadyac’s movie “Brian Banks,” a football star is convicted of a crime he did not commit, and is later freed thanks to Justin Brooks of the Florida Innocence Project.
In time for Christmas, a season of good feelings by people who want feel-good movies, “Just Mercy” enters the genre, a film by Hawaiian-born Destin Daniel Cretton following up his “The Glass Castle,” about a young woman brought up by unconventional parents, often living in poverty, whose folks now criticize her for marrying a financial analyst in New York thereby trashing their values. While “The Glass Castle” is not about the judicial system, its theme embraces the idea of giving up a conventional life, one that everyone expects you to pursue, in favor of helping the people who need you the most—the post, the disenfranchised, the wrongfully convicted.
The most surprising thing about Cretton’s new film, “Just Mercy,” is that it is based closely on an actual case. As the plot rolls out, you might scarcely believe that a guy fresh out of law school, albeit Harvard, without prior experience and with a view that the impossible takes just a little longer, succeeds in winning a case full of obstacles. The principal obstacle is the desire of an Alabama town sheriff (filmed in Georgia) and young D.A. to hold on to their reputations, which depends on keeping the town safe. That’s safe for the white folks on the right side of the track, since for African-Americans there never is a feeling of safety from an oppressive local and state government and hostile townspeople.
The fall-guy, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) enjoys what could have been his last day of freedom, felling a tree and being arrested for the murder of an eighteen-year-old white girl. Though he has a strong alibi, it is backed up only by the local black community. A white felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), is promised a lighter sentence if he testifies against McMillian, who perjures himself leading to a conviction (I just corrected a typo, the more adept “confiction”). Enter Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), out of Harvard Law School, heading from a lucrative career in Delaware but choosing instead to drive south to defend hapless people who may have been wrongfully jailed. He is lucky to get out alive, drawing hostile stares from the white community and especially its lawmen, even strip-searched before the first conference with his client. Aided by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), his white paralegal who sets him up in her home pending the rental of an office,
McMillian who at first does not trust that this young man can do anything for him but soon shakes his hand in agreement. Stevenson moves for a re-trial but is buffeted by the establishment until he winds his way through the judicial process to get just mercy.
Some of the interesting side lines include the conversations that McMillian has on death row with his neighbors, all in solitary confinement. The most stellar scene in the work finds Stevenson interviewing Ralph Myers to get an admission that he lied when he accused McMillian of standing over the body of the dead girl. Tim Blake Nelson, his bottom lip twisted to the side as though a victim of a stroke, his eyes blinking, head swiveling, turns in what in my mind should make him a candidate for best supporting role awards.
For those who have never seen this type of courtroom drama, never exposed to “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” “Conviction” with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, “The Green Mile” based on a Stephen King novel, or “The Shawshank Redemption,” will be particularly riveted by this intense drama. An older audience might challenge this movie’s value on the grounds that it’s a straightforward biopic in strict chronology, those people wanting more free-floating imagination in their courtroom dramas. Nevertheless, for all potential audiences, “Just Mercy,” given its fiercely motivated performances, is a delight, a Christmas feel-good drama which even at over two hours does not overstay its welcome.
136 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriter: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson
Screened at: Warner, NYC, 11/2/19
Opens: December 25, 2019
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+