By Tim Nasson
It’s said truth is stranger than fiction. In Just Mercy, a new film starring Oscar winner Jamie Foxx (Ray), truth is scarier than fiction.
Just Mercy tells the true story of Walter McMillan, an African American man unfairly convicted of murdering an 18-year-old white girl in 1980s Alabama and sentenced to death. It’s estimated 10% of death row inmates nationwide are innocent. The film makes a valiant—mostly successful—effort at conveying the horrors, emotional and physical, that such death row inmates endure.
Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Captain America), gives the best performance of his career, as recent Harvard Law School graduate Bryan Stevenson. Instead of pursuing a high paying legal job, Stevenson packs up his jalopy and moves to Alabama to try and save as many lives as he can from the corrupt justice system and the electric chair. He takes on Walter McMillan’s (Foxx) case.
Just Mercy is like a John Grisham novel come to life. The basis for McMillan’s conviction rested on the untruthful testimony of Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), whose motivation is more complicated than audiences will suspect. Almost immediately, it’s clear to Stevenson that McMillan has not only been framed but is a scapegoat for the lazy, duplicitous District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) and local police who are not interested in finding the real killer.
Determined to receive a new, fairer trial for McMillan by the Alabama Supreme Court, (the petition at the local court level was denied), Stevenson pulls an ace out of his sleeve—a 60 Minutes interview that exposes the corruption in Alabama for all the world to see.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12 and the upcoming Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Just Mercy would have benefited from better editing. Oscar winner Brie Larson’s (Room, Captain Marvel) role amounts to a bait and switch. Larson appears in the picture for only the briefest amount of time and her character, Eva, adds nothing of importance. Perhaps she was doing a favor for the director, whose film Short Term 12 is what first got Larson noticed by critics and Hollywood?
The 1988 movie Mississippi Burning, based on another true story in which two white F.B.I. Agents with wildly different styles arrive in mid-1960s Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights activists, set the bar for civil rights themed films, and was a box office smash, earning 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
While not reaching those heights, Just Mercy will nevertheless stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.
Just Mercy Review by Tim Nasson