America’s long, agonizing history of racism and legalized white superiority is well known, and its ugly surviving offspring are obvious to anyone with eyes willing to see.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy” digs into that territory with a based-on-fact story about real-life Bryan Stevenson, a young black lawyer fresh out of Harvard Law, who in the late 1980s relocates to Alabama in order to start an Equal Justice Initiative. His goal is to take on the lost causes of black men unjustly sent to death row.
It’s a familiar topic, and if it sounds a bit like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” know that in an ironic twist of fate, Stevenson chooses to settle in Monroeville, where that novel takes place. In fact, the locals take pride in advising Stevenson to visit the museum dedicated to Lee and the book.
He finds help in local girl Eva Ansley, who becomes his office manager. But when they try to move into the rental space Eva had found, the landlord refuses to rent to them, Bryan moves in with Eva and her family.
We will get to know four death row inmates in the course of this film, but the emphasis is on Walter McMillian, aka Johnny D, played brilliantly by Jamie Foxx in what may be his best performance ever.
Johnny D was convicted of the murder of an 18-year-old woman on the false testimony of one witness – twitchy Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) – and despite the contrary testimony of several other witnesses.
Johnny D doesn’t expect much more of Stevenson than he does of the so-called justice system – he’s already suffered both the indignity of confinement on death row a year before he was convicted, and dealt with two ineffectual attorneys since.
But first, there’s the heartbreaking case of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam vet with PTSD and a bit of a stutter who really did what they convicted him of: tossing a bomb onto a woman’s porch that killed her.
When Bryan’s writ for a stay of execution is denied, Richardson shows more courage than would ever be expected. Since he has no relatives, he asks Bryan to be there and to take the flag from his coffin. “It’s different from ‘Nam,” he says. “I had a chance there.”
Cretton (“Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle”) succumbs to the formula for this kind of hero flick, but that doesn’t dim its impact nor its continued importance. That is largely due to the spectacular performances of Foxx and Jordan, both at the top of their game.
The irony of Cretton’s use of the slave song “No More Auction Block” and the fact that slaves were sold near that very courthouse not so terribly long ago add to the poignancy. And does the controlled fury in Bryan’s eye indicates that we haven’t yet left that sad past behind.
But at least “Just Mercy” forces us to notice.
This film is currently in wide release. 2 HR 17 MIN PG13