Just Mercy continues writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s zig-zag up the movie food chain. His breakthrough came in 2013’s Short Term 12, which not only made his own name but also that of Brie Larson, who is now playing Captain Marvel at god knows what hourly rate of pay. Trouper that she is, she turns out for Cretton again here, as she did in his last film, 2017’s The Glass Castle, though here she’s in a minor, supporting role to star Michael B Jordan.
Just Mercy tells a true story, of a smalltime lumber guy, Walter McMillian, known locally as Johnny D, who was picked up by the cops for the murder of a blond white woman in 1987. In spite of the fact that there was no evidence against him, that he had a cast-iron alibi with any number of witnesses that he wasn’t even in the town where it happened, Johnny found himself on death row in Alabama, from where not a single person had ever been released, except through the tender mercies of the electric chair.
Johnny’s actual crime, it’s suggested, was having fooled around with a white woman at some point, and what with Johnny being a black man in Alabama and all…
Enter Michael B Jordan as real-life superhero Bryan Stevenson (the film is based on his book), a young, idealistic Harvard graduate lawyer who has decided not to follow the money and is instead representing cases on Alabama’s death row. Having first worked out that none of the men he’s represented has had decent legal representation – defence lawyers who didn’t defend, didn’t mention vital facts in the case and so on – he takes on Johnny’s case, after some stiff-legged getting-to-know-yous.
Off they go, this doughty pair, through all the hoops that the definitely-not-racist townspeople – how can they be, when they have a Mockingbird Museum in this town where Harper Lee grew up? – can put in their way, past the resistant local sheriff, the flinty local DA and into court and then up through the legal system to the State Supreme Court.
It’s an angry film but a familiar one, so full of stock characters you half expect Rod Steiger to appear any minute. And that’s the film’s big problem.
There are some scenes of genuine shock, like when Stevenson visits Johnny for the first time and is strip-searched on entry by the white prison guards, just so he understands who has the whip hand here. But too often it treads a familiar path.
In real life, of course, it’s this routine different treatment that is outrageous. Out and out racism, the gaming of the system, the loading of the dice, at every stage, in every way, against one colour of person by another, in ways legal and illegal, indict a system professing to offer equality of justice to all. But at the level of drama, we have just seen all this too often before.
In spite of the presence of Foxx, who is always good, it’s Jordan’s film, though Cretton hovers uncertainly over the character of Johnny D, unsure how much story time to give him. Johnny’s will he/won’t he with the electric chair never really carries any… er… spark.
On the way to the final dénouement we do see one man go to the chair, Rob Morgan as the benighted PTSD-suffering Herb being just one of many examples of a great cast (Larson, Rafe Spall, Michael Harding, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, CJ LeBlanc) just not having enough to do.
It ends on a shocking final statistic. That for every nine people who die on death row, one has been found innocent. We hear it. We just don’t feel it like we should.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021