Just Mercy movie review: Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx power a predictable true-crime drama
Just Mercy movie review: Director Destin Daniel Cretton relies on a trio of stars -- Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson -- to tell a stirring true-crime story.Updated: Jan 17, 2020 18:08 IST
Director - Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast - Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall
As with any other genre, there are more bad courtroom dramas in the world than good ones. This skewed ratio is probably why we have such an inaccurate perception of films that belong to this category. We expect melodrama from legal thrillers; sudden twists accompanied by rousing speeches and sweeping music.
But it’s sort of understandable why filmmakers, more often than not, fall into these traps. There are only so many ways a director can dramatise an environment as uncinematic as the inside of a courtroom, or the process of rifling through paperwork.
Watch the Just Mercy trailer here
Director Destin Daniel Cretton decides to do away with the tropes altogether. Like any good true-crime drama — think the Paradise Lost trilogy or Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us — he relies almost exclusively on the power of the fact-based story he is telling. There are no grand speeches in Just Mercy, nor is the plot particularly surprising. And the only manipulation you’re likely to witness won’t be from the background music, but corrupt cops.
What you can expect, however, is an inelegant but solidly crafted drama about the cracks in the justice system that allow innocent men like Walter McMillian to be arrested, tried, and convicted based on unethically gathered and shoddily presented evidence. Fans of the genre, especially after the phenomenal success of the Serial podcast, dramas such as The Night Of, and documentary series like Making a Murderer, would no doubt be more familiar with the intricacies of the American legal system than with the realities of our own.
Just Mercy counts on you to be aware of the racial context of Walter’s story, and the historical relevance of the town it takes place in. Monroeville, Alabama will forever be synonymous with tales of social injustice, thanks to Harper Lee’s seminal novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. And it was in the same town in 1987 that Walter McMillian, a black man with no criminal record and an airtight alibi, was arrested for the brutal murder of a white teenager.
But Cretton doesn’t dwell on the violence, nor is he concerned with highlighting the victim’s tragedy in any way. Even McMillian isn’t the subject of his film. He focuses instead on Bryan Stevenson, the young black lawyer who defends him years later, and despite intense societal backlash, sustained humiliation and constant obstacles, attempts to get McMillian exonerated.
Stevenson, played by an earnest Michael B Jordan, was up against a community that simply refused to believe that McMillian could, in fact, be innocent. Anybody who made such a suggestion was called an enemy of the people. We see several scenes of Stevenson being railroaded by the system, mocked by the police, and ill-treated by white men of authority, and yet we never quite get a sense of why he’s doing what he’s doing.
There’s a vague conversation he has early on in the film with his mother, about doing right by his community. It’s also not lost on him that, as a black man, he could very easily have been the one behind the bars, and not on the outside looking in. Cretton bookends the film with scenes of the police pulling McMillian and Stevenson over. To the racist cop’s eye, there is no difference between a manual labourer and a Harvard grad if they’re both black. It reminded me of Chris Rock’s silent protests on social media; the legendary comedian posts selfies every time he gets pulled over.
Just Mercy is an angry film, but not in the ways that you’d expect. It wants to rally people not against those who do not look like them, but against a system that’s been rigged against them for centuries.
But as relaxed as the film’s pace is, I would’ve liked Cretton to have spent more time on the minutiae of the job. It wouldn’t have made too much difference to the plot, but it would certainly have nudged the film away from coming across like a Wikipedia summary, which it sometimes does, thanks to on-the-nose exposition and stock supporting characters.
It’s obvious that the film is speaking directly to an audience predisposed to liking it, regardless of its flaws and a glaring lack of mystery — we know that McMillian is innocent, of that there is no doubt. And Jamie Foxx’s stunningly internalised performance goes a long way in earning the audience’s affections.
Since conventional marketing techniques haven’t worked for Just Mercy, perhaps positive word of mouth will. Here’s a tease for the Marvel crowd: This is the only time you’ll see Killmonger and Captain Marvel being directed by the guy who’s going to make Shang-Chi.