• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Death row drama Just Mercy will make your blood boil

 

JUST MERCY
directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan star in the latest film from the annals of US injustice.

At the heart of Just Mercy is one of those vitally important true stories you wish would translate into an enthralling, unmissable movie. The tale of an African-American man wrongly convicted of murder and consigned to death row may be set in 1990s Alabama, but its myriad injustices continue to play out across the US to this day. If anything cries “it’s a new decade, and things have to change”, it’s the horrors portrayed in this film.

Unfortunately, although it is as well meaning and competent as its hard-working characters, the film doesn’t quite have the zest required for gripping courtroom drama.

The story begins, ironically, in Monroe County, where Harper Lee set To Kill a Mockingbird, her story of a black man wrongly accused of a heinous crime against a white woman.

Local man Walter McMillian (a committed performance by Jamie Foxx) is accused of murdering a white teenager, jailed before he even gets to trial and then convicted under a system rigged against black men. Enter idealistic Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan, Black Panther and Creed), who wants to fight for society’s underdogs, and Brie Larson’s plucky Eva Ansley, who risks her own family’s safety to run the (real-life and still operating) Equal Justice Initiative, which takes up McMillian’s case.

Just Mercy is the third feature by screenwriter-director Destin Daniel Cretton, and his third with Larson (following his excellent breakout Short Term 12 and 2017’s The Glass Castle).

All of the actors acquit themselves well, especially Tim Blake Nelson (yet again typecast as a Southern crook) and Brit Rafe Spall (son of Timothy) giving the accent a good go. Jordan channels a young Denzel Washington as the teetotal, God-fearing, workaholic lawyer.

But the pace suffers in its two-and-a-quarter-hours runtime. The plot hits all the usual injustice beats, but not particularly dramatically, and it’s a movie of pedestrian camera work and unnoticeable music.

This kind of tale should not only be ripe for cinematic depiction, but also continue the vital dialogue of such films as Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile and gruelling documentaries The Thin Blue Line and Into the Abyss.

Those films tackled the inhumanity of punishing murder with murder in a no-holds-barred manner. Just Mercy heads into horrifying territory, and its moments of ritual humiliation are powerful, particularly when the injustice befalls characters you expect to be immune. Despite being less than the sum of its parts, Just Mercy delivers visceral scenes that ought to make your blood boil.

IN CINEMAS FROM JANUARY 23

★★★

Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up to our weekly newsletter.