TORONTO—A pivotal irony, which would be a running joke if it wasn’t so painful, helps to drive home the central theme of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, which had its world premiere on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Shortly after the Harvard-trained, African-American lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in Monroeville , Alabama, to assist poor death row inmates, a well-meaning white person asks him if he’s visited the “Mockingbird” Museum. Held up by residents as proof of the town’s sympathy with the legacy of the civil rights movement, Monroeville’s Old Courthouse Museum, which pays homage to the setting that inspired some of the famous scenes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the movie of the same name, is a local shrine. Yet while the townspeople gush over Lee’s novel, Stevenson becomes convinced that one of Monroeville’s black citizens, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), faces execution for a crime he didn’t commit.
Based on Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Cretton’s film is part legal procedural and part inspirational weepie. Although the agonizing struggle to free Walter McMillian forms the film’s central narrative, a number of subplots reinforce the movie’s implicit argument: the Deep South of the late-1980s and early-1990s, when the action takes place, was nearly as racist as the Jim Crow era and, by implication, early 21st century America, north and south, has not yet resolved the racial quandaries of the 20th century.
Mirroring the liberal Warner Bros. films of the 1930s, this newly minted Warner Bros. social-conscience movie concisely telegraphs its message. Jordan portrays Stevenson as unfailingly polite and almost stoic in the face of white imperviousness and hostility to the fate of his death row clients. Nevertheless, like Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night, Jordan’s Stevenson faces numerous challenges that threaten to undermine his cool façade. The elegant lawyer is justifiably shocked when, in defiance of protocol, a prison guard demands that he be strip-searched before meeting with his client. When cops pull over Stevenson’s car on a country road and put a gun to his head before releasing him, McMillian’s plaintive cry that “you’re guilty when you’re born” (which launches one of Foxx’s most effective scenes) hits home with a vengeance.
McMillian is a pariah in Monroeville because the “respectable,” middle-class white citizens of the town believe he murdered Ronda Morrison, a helpless white teenager. Much of Just Mercy’s workmanlike skill resides in Cretton’s patient unraveling of this myth, which eventually leads to a traditional, although arguably well-earned, happy ending. Above all, the movie achieves this goal with the aid of some supremely skillful character actors. Tim Blake Nelson portrays Ralph Myers, the man whose dishonest testimony sends McMillian to jail, as a twitchy, self-loathing con man who repents before it’s too late. As Tommy Chapman, the local district attorney who becomes Stevenson’s constant sparring partner, both inside the courtroom and out, Rafe Spall is the embodiment of sanctimonious family values, the defender of Ronda Morrison’s unspoiled virtue—a defense that unfortunately rests upon a lie. On the other hand, Brie Larson’s role as Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s partner in the Equal Justice Initiative designed to defend indigent clients, is rather perfunctory. Perhaps she is merely paying back Cretton for giving her a plum role in Short Term 12, the grittier independent film that proved a breakthrough for both the director and its star.
Although anyone who followed the case in the ‘90s, or has read Stevenson’s memoir, knows that Walter is vindicated through a number of skillful petitions for a retrial orchestrated by the movie’s hero, the linked story of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) imbues the film with a melancholy tinge before its upbeat conclusion. While Richardson is in fact guilty of killing a child with a bomb meant for his girlfriend, Stevenson convincingly argues that, given his client’s PTSD suffered after arduous service in the Vietnam War, the state of Alabama’s death sentence is unforgivably cruel. In fact, if movie audiences needed any more evidence after previous cinematic sermons such as Dead Man Walking, Just Mercy indicts the death penalty as an indefensible punishment that often ensnares spotlessly innocent victims.
Of course, in the tradition of mainstream Hollywood, Just Mercy is invested in celebrating a heroic individual and is oblivious to broader social movements beyond the moral probity of its admirable protagonist. One suspects that it will be a long wait before Hollywood devotes a feature a film to, say, Black Lives Matter. In the meantime, we can be grateful that Warner Bros. and Cretton are, for once, invested it the fate of a black hero, not a white savior.