Justice? What a concept. Being able to settle or reverse a wrong outcome is an interesting age-old idea, literally dating back before the Bible, but if you look at the bigger picture, its mere existence is an unfortunate reminder that our world is imperfect. We live in a world inhabited by just as much good as bad, and that’s tragic. The fact that there is even a system that tolerates the suffering of innocent people and the success of the guilty is anything but just, and while Just Mercy shares that concern, it’s determined to prove how attainable justice really is.
Having previously worked on Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle, director Destin Daniel Cretton is no stranger to stories that embrace the world’s harsh realities. What I like most about his approach though is that he always focuses less on the things that hurt us and more on the pain that the characters feel. In a story about a bunch of prison inmates who may or may not be innocent, there is a lot of pain to be dealt with, and he balances it all beautifully.
There are times where you feel just as small as the world makes these men to be, even the free ones such as Michael B. Jordan’s Bryan Stevenson. But there are also moments where Cretton grants the characters the mental freedom they need, and you feel that freedom right along with them. The best example of this is when one of the inmates finds out that he’s scheduled to be executed, Jamie Foxx’s character helps him calm down by asking him to close his eyes and envision the palm trees swaying in the wind. While the one character needs that quick moment of clarity, it’s made clear that Foxx’s character does too. And when Cretton shows us a visual of the trees in this scene, it’s only natural to feel just as relieved as them.
While I did mention previously that film does revolve around a group of men on death row who may or may not be innocent, that’s not its primary focus. In fact, it’s more of the film’s B-plot. The film is based on the New York Times best-selling memoir of the same name about a young black lawyer (Michael B. Jordan) who moves to the south to help make a difference in the lives of men who think that the world has nothing left to offer them. While helping men at a death row facility in Alabama, he meets an older black man named Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who he believes has been wrongfully imprisoned for the death of a white woman. Determined to overturn his conviction, he starts to investigate the murder himself, but is met with resistance from the town, the police, and even the local district attorney.
Over the course of the film, the constant threat of death looms, and I think that’s why the B-plot is so important. We meet a few characters who, like McMillian, are just waiting for their expiration dates to be set, and as sad as it is to say, not all of them survive. Their misfortune only stokes the fire for Stevenson’s cause though. He refuses to let McMillian share that fate, and as a result puts up a stronger fight.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
I was interested to see how Jordan would approach the main role being that this is the first film he’s producing and acting in, but he’s actually pretty good. There’s a newfound sense of maturity that it feels like he and his character share. Foxx is also good, though with the exception of two or three scenes, I fail to see how he could be the supporting standout in this film - more on that in a second. Larson also delivers a solid performance. In this, her third collaboration with Cretton, she plays Eva Ansley, a white woman who willingly works for and with Stevenson.
Now, while all three of the main characters give good performances, I think that the entire supporting cast offers better ones. It really does say a lot when the film’s minor characters steal the show. It actually amazes me how literally no one even attempted to bring Rob Morgan into the Oscar conversation this year. His performance as Herbert, another one of Bryan’s clients on death row, is heartbreaking and harks back to Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey in The Green Mile. I only hope that such a beautifully crafted performance will open more doors for him.
Rafe Spall’s villainous DA Tommy Chapman is also really good - so good that you’ll wish he was eaten by a T-Rex at the end of a bad Jurassic Park sequel. But in all seriousness, while Spall is often typecast as the villain (because he’s so good at it), he’s another actor that I hope gets to showcase more of his acting range in the future.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
There is minimal use of special effects in this film. The only time I can actually recall seeing something digitally altered is when there is a 60 Minutes special about Jamie Foxx’s character. His photo is superimposed into the episode as opposed to the real man the film is based on. It’s pretty well-masked though.
There is also minimal use of makeup. The production design is pretty great though, as everything feels so true to the era. From the set, to the cars, to the clothes, the filmmakers do a great job at immersing you in the story that way.
“It’s Never Too Late For Justice.”
Genre: Biography. Drama.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score meets the film’s basic requirements, but it’s not really memorable. There isn’t a single moment that I can recall where the music impacted me or made a certain scene stand out. It’s just okay.
The sound design on the other hand is brilliant. There are a couple of scenes at the death row facility where the sound, and even the lack thereof, really do help to enhance the experiences of the characters and emphasize the weight of certain moments. Several times in the film, we’ll see death row inmates bang their metal cups against their bars for various reasons. What starts off as a chaotic cacophony eventually turns into a marvelous melody.
Despite society’s constant struggle to discern right from wrong, I think it’s fair to say that justice is attainable, though it isn’t attained as often as it should be. Just Mercy may be a testament to the importance of determination and hope, and a tribute to the lives that have been lost as a result of an imperfect system. However, it also serves as a harsh reminder of a dark time in this country’s past that really wasn’t that long ago.