“Just Mercy” is about way more than just mercy

Just Mercy (Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Jamie Foxx, Tim Blake Nelson) – If you see this film, you are going to get mad at the injustice that happened … and is still prevalent … in this country today.  If you watch this movie, you are going to find it impossible to separate this story from the hatred and bigotry that has re-emerged in the oft-proclaimed “greatest country on Earth.”

Just Mercy is actually a story of INjustice and NO mercy so the title is clever for its double meeting but doesn’t exactly apply.  “Based on a true story,” Just Mercy centers on an African American, Harvard-trained, newly licensed lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (whose book inspired the screenplay), who heads to Alabama after passing the Bar Exam to represent inmates on death row.  He is inspired, naïve and totally committed.  It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he’s not in his native Delaware anymore.  On his first visit to the jail (the setting is the late 1980s), he is stripped-searched, which is simultaneously insulting, humiliating, and depictive of the worst of the South’s justice system.

Michael B. Jordan, who was so impressive in Creed and Black Panther, stars as Stevenson.  Assisted by a local white woman, Eva (Oscar winner Brie Larson), Bryan establishes the Equal Justice Initiative with a federal grant and finds plenty of resistance from local law enforcement and prison personnel. He is not welcome in town, and is viewed skeptically by the death row inmates, too.  They have seen their share of lawyers, some incompetent, some out to make money, and others just seeking glory.  Stevenson sets out to prove he is there to help.

The film focuses on the case of Walt McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Jimmy D., who was wrongly accused of murder, set up by the police, and placed on death row a year before his trial.  Based on the testimony of one convicted felon (played by Tim Blake Nelson is a stunning performance), he was sentenced to death by electrocution.  He had been waiting for more than five years when Stevenson arrives.  Reluctant at first to work with the impeccably dressed and refined kid lawyer, he eventually relents after Bryan visits Jimmy D’s family.  In many ways, the rest of the film is a traditional courtroom drama punctuated by a compelling story of discrimination, southern injustice, and overcoming the odds.

Despite its 2 hours and 15 minutes, the film is riveting … and maddening.  It is compelling filmmaking from little-known writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton.  Make no mistake about it, this film belongs to the actors, particularly Jordan, Foxx, and Nelson.  Jordan’s earnestness is only exceeded by Foxx’s rawness and Nelson’s physicality.  These fine actors are in prime form.

But the movie is not without its faults.  Brie Larson is pretty well wasted as Eva because her character’s development is so very thin.  The prosecutor and sheriff characters are pure ultra-stereotypes (even if true).  Chalk it up to an inexperienced director blessed with a great story and a fantastic cast.

Just Mercy is a must-see for people who feel like our society still hasn’t come far enough on race relations and who are appalled that 11 percent of all death row inmates have been proven to be innocent.

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