Though Just Mercy is a relatively by-the-book procedural, it is actually better than its trailer suggests, portraying a solemn lawyer promising justice for an unjustly imprisoned death row inmate. With the swelling music of the trailer, and the cuts between concerned family members, furrowed brows, and evil lawyers and judges in business casual, you pretty much know exactly what you are going to get. What makes Just Mercy rise above the typical to be memorable are a couple of astonishingly good performances. And no, I’m not talking about the leads.
The always-good Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stephenson, a (real life) do-good lawyer fresh out of Harvard who has moved to the Deep South of Alabama to help those on death row. His earnestness and drive for justice barely cracks even as he, a black man, encounters blatant racism in the town Monroeville and at the penitentiary. (Watch Jordan’s face turn to stone, registering shock, humiliation, and anger all at once as he is strip searched on his first visit to the prison.) The main case that he takes up is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman. The many problems in his case are that his conviction was based on no evidence, but on the testimony of one shifty man. As an audience, you know immediately that he is an innocent man, it is just a matter of the movie unfurling his justice… because that is exactly what we want and expect from a film like this.
In that sense, the movie is fine. Jordan is always watchable, even if this role doesn’t give him a lot of range other than earnest goodness. Foxx, in my opinion, always seems like he is consciously in a movie, and isn’t really my cup of tea. His story is of course sympathetic, but the character is not really compelling.
However, what makes Just Mercy memorable are the performances of Rob Morgan and Tim Blake Nelson, as two other inmates. Morgan plays Herbert Richardson, McMillian’s cell-neighbor on death row. Richardson knows he is guilty of his crime, which is not the issue, but he is so messed up from PTSD from Vietnam that he is wracked with guilt and trauma over the murder that he didn’t mean to commit. He is both sympathetic and complex, and his role is mesmerizing and absolutely haunting. Tim Blake Nelson’s Ralph Myers, a man who whose own prison sentence is entwined with McMillian’s, first comes across as a “poor white trash” caricature, with his droopy crooked mouth and thick twang. But as his character starts to develop after various meetings with Stephenson, his own tragic story unfolds, shedding light on how the system uses poor white people to help keep black people down.
Just Mercy is based on Bryan Stephenson’s own memoir, and it certainly is an interesting story. As a movie, it easily succeeds in hammering home the main narrative of McMillian’s appalling injustice. But it’s the peripheral stories in the film, specifically those of Richardson and Myers, that feel like the true gut-punch. For every righteous victory, there continues to be all these other people still in the vicious cycle of the corrupt and unjust system, whether they are guilty or not.