August 15, 2020  (Web Review)

Just Mercy

Warner Brothers, 137 m., PG-13, DVD: $28.99, Blu-ray: $37.99, April 20

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

This true-life story, in which an idealistic young lawyer takes on the case of a wrongly-convicted death-row inmate in the American South and fights against a perpetually racist system to free him, follows a familiar formula with one major difference: the lawyer, like his client, is African-American, not the usual white savior.  It is based on the case of Walter McMillian from Monroeville, Alabama, who was found guilty of killing an eighteen-year old white girl in 1986, despite the fact that numerous witnesses could testify that he was elsewhere at the time of her murder.  Sentenced to death, he was awaiting execution in 1988 when Bryan Stevenson, a recent Harvard Law graduate, was establishing the Equal Justice Initiative, designed to provide representation for prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted.  Stevenson persuaded the initially reluctant McMillian to allow him to mount an appeal, and after five years of investigation and legal maneuvering, won his exoneration despite resistance from authorities intent on upholding the tainted conviction and executing a patently innocent man. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s script, based on Stevenson’s memoir, follows the intricacies of the case quite closely, though with some necessary concision and simplification, and both Jamie Foxx, as McMillian, and Michael B. Jordan, as Stevenson, deliver committed performances, the former more forceful and the latter more restrained.  There is also a remarkable supporting turn by Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers, the man pressured by the sheriff to identify McMillian as the killer in return for a lighter sentence who must be persuaded to recant his testimony; with his array of grins and twitches, Nelson undoubtedly plays to the rafters but steals every one of his scenes,  The film also offers sharply etched portraits of the other death-row inmates surrounding McMillian, the most poignant being Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a troubled Vietnam War veteran who admits his crime and is guilt-ridden over it.  Brie Larson is also excellent as the courageous white woman who serves as Stevenson’s aide despite threats against her family.  A point made repeatedly in Just Mercy is that Monroeville locals are quick to recommend a museum dedicated to To Kill a Mockingbird, written by the town’s most famous resident, to Stevenson without realizing the irony. The joke may be unsubtle, but it reminds us that the perversion of justice by racism is not a thing of the past. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette, Making Mercy (4 m.), another on the Equal Justice Initiative (8 m.), a third on the case that inspired the film (6 m.), and eight deleted scenes (14.5 m.).  Recommended. (F. Swietek)