Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s films share a common tone — humane, socially progressive, thoughtful and, well, a bit dull. They’re earnest to a fault. So it goes with Just Mercy, the death-row drama based on Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 nonfiction book of the same name. It’s set primarily in Alabama but was largely shot in Georgia.
Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson’s screen counterpart, a callow, sincere attorney freshly minted from Harvard Law School. He breaks his mama’s heart (and makes her fear for his safety) when he moves to Atlanta in 1989 and joins the Southern Center for Human Rights to research the cases of death-penalty prisoners. (As a statistic at the end of the film reminds us, at least one out of nine people sent to death row are wrongly convicted.)
Stevenson sets up shop in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville with a local human rights advocate, Eva Ansley. (Today they lead the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative.) Director Cretton’s first impactful feature, 2013’s Short Term 12, starred a young actor with the only-in-California name of Brie Larson. Now an Oscar winner and Marvel superhero, Larson remains loyal to the guy who gave her one of her first big-screen breaks. She starred in his last movie, The Glass Castle, and returns here as Ansley, a role that promises more than it delivers.
Their central case is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an independent pulpwood worker and family man known to most as Johnny D. He’s on death row for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman who worked as a dry-cleaning clerk — even though at the time of the killing McMillian was at a fish fry surrounded by dozens of friends and neighbors, and his truck that day was crippled at home, in need of a new transmission.
His trial hinged on the dubious eyewitness account of fellow prisoner Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson, perhaps bringing a little too much flavor to his familiar corn pone shtick). Myers’ convoluted story wouldn’t usually hold water in court, but the fact that McMillian was once caught fooling around with a married white woman seems to be at the vengeful heart of his conviction.
Stevenson and McMillian’s first prison interview, cut short by McMillian, is a keen study in bitter experience vs. youthful idealism. Magnetic in the Creed movies and as the antagonist in Black Panther, Jordan leaves the boxing clothes behind and (mainly) keeps his pecs covered. His portrayal of Stevenson is sympathetic if a little too saintly, but when he spouts legalese, he sounds more like an actor reciting memorized lines than a member of the bar thoroughly fluent in the language of the law. In the much smaller supporting role, Foxx does a terrific job dramatizing a salt-of-the-earth man resigned to a place where, as a black man, “You’re guilty from the moment you’re born.”
Just Mercy lays that message on thick with a lot of Southern racism-by-the-numbers. Yes, it’s a very real cancer, in our region and in our nation, but we’ve seen the same kind of depiction in many, many films. Stevenson and Ansley are menaced by the townsfolk, harassed by cops and receive threatening phone calls. The scowling white lawmen in Just Mercy could have walked on-screen from 1967’s In the Heat of the Night.
Slightly more nuanced than the dastardly sheriff who presides over the county is the local district attorney, Chapman (Rafe Spall, a Brit, struggling here as several actors do, with a Southern accent). He’s a product of his environment and would just as soon Stevenson stop questioning old convictions, but he’s young enough to perhaps be open to change. And truth.
There’s a running joke throughout Just Mercy, as locals encourage Stevenson to check out the old Monroeville courthouse, now a museum commemorating Harper Lee and her famous novel. “It’s one of the great civil rights landmarks of the South,” a booster says, failing to acknowledge that it’s fiction the museum memorializes, not one of the many factual injustices committed in the region.
The reference may be a little too on-the-nose for the movie itself. It reminds us that a novel, film and now a play like To Kill a Mockingbird can move us. But ironically, as it’s presented here, the true story of Just Mercy stirs our empathy but not our emotions. The closest it comes to doing so is in the end credits, featuring photos of the real-life Stevenson, McMillian and Ansley.