In and amongst all the awards season chaos, it’s worth remembering that behind all the most-hyped films of the year are important films that simply go under the radar by not quite making the headlines. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy is a perfect example of this. Focusing on the true story of renowned Civil Rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), Just Mercy details Stevenson’s everlasting fight for justice, focusing on the particular case of the wrongly convicted Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) and Stevenson’s battle to save him from Death Row.
Where there are films that gloss over the treatment of African-Americans at the hand of racist white Americans and resolve them as an uplifting plot point, Just Mercy pulls no punches in its searing indictment of the American judicial system’s systematic racism against the African-American people. The story of Walter McMillan, a hard-working, family man who was found guilty of murdering an 18-year-old white girl only through two false testaments made by white people is a shameful part of history. Were it not for the determination and care showed by Bryan Stevenson, it is certain that McMillan would’ve been sent to the electric chair.
The film is able, through deftly navigating the long legal battle Stevenson faced to free McMillan from prison, really expose countless injustices faced by many African-Americans purely on the colour of their skin. Whilst Just Mercy focuses mostly on Stevenson working the McMillan case, the film’s message transcends this specific story to shed a light on a nation-wide, systemic issue that to this day has failed to be resolved. There is a heart-wrenching execution scene in the film that really knocks the viewer for six, sticking with them throughout the remainder of the film as a reminder that whilst this story may have a triumphant ending, there are still so many out there whose endings aren’t quite so lucky, especially in the case of so many people losing decades of their life on death row for crimes they didn’t even commit. Though Just Mercy is set in the past, it’s relevance to the depressing reality of today is apparent throughout.
At its core, Just Mercy is a film about people, which is why it was so crucial to have the right actors to really relay its emotional weight. As Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan carries the film with confidence, finely conveying Stevenson’s passion, grit and his huge heart with effortless charm, whilst always finding the right balance with emotion to allow the audience to truly connect to and massively respect a real-life hero whose actions are always admirable. Jamie Foxx is able to capture McMillan’s struggles with a mostly reserved quietude that on occasion leaks into moving displays of emotion that accurately represent the magnitude of his situation and the situation of many others. Where Michael B. Jordan is telling the story, Foxx is relaying the wider message of the film, which is a testament to the hefty talents of these two men.
Where Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and then Rafe Spall provide firm support on polar opposite sides of the story, the real scene-stealer in the supporting cast of this film is certainly Tim Blake Nelson. As Ralph Myers, the convicted murderer who under threat of death falsely testified against McMillan, Blake Nelson transforms physically with such little effort that it is almost surprising his name hasn’t been at least mentioned in the Supporting Actor stakes, though that category is certainly stacked this year. His contorted face, flawless accent and pained expression elevate every scene he’s in and is certainly one of the film’s highlights.
Despite a stacked cast that all perform well and a story that never fails to hit its emotional beats, Just Mercy is perhaps lacking in the technical aspects that could really push it into the awards conversation. Besides some clever sound work with breathing, there isn’t much on a visual or audial level that could’ve really made it one of the year’s better films. The cinematography works best when it follows the characters in close-ups to convey the right tone, yet there are no memorable or lasting shots that are seared into the mind after watching the film, which feels like a missed opportunity with regards to the film’s subject matter. There’s limited use of music that whilst works when given the chance, remains mostly unnoticed and irrelevant with the big focus on dialogue, which again hits the right emotional beats but that is more of a credit to the performances than the writing in this case.
Whilst there’s nothing to rave about on a technical perspective, the point is that Just Mercy’s relevance as a film with an important message far exceeds its need to be technically dazzling. The actors in this film carry on their shoulders a truly inspiring yet highly emotional story that highlights so many injustices faced historically by African-American people that are sadly still so prevalent today. Bryan Stevenson’s story is one that needs to be heard and seen on the big-screen by audiences, to understand the things he has tirelessly fought against for decades and so that wider audiences understand and hopefully support this fight against injustice. It might not be a big awards player, but the message of Just Mercy makes it a film that deserves to be seen.
Words by Elliott Jones