Just Mercy: Death Row Drama with Quiet Power (7/10)

Adapted from activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, subtitled “A Story of Justice and Redemption”, Destin Daniel Cretton’s timely legal drama is, for the most part, as admirably understated as its subject. Largely eschewing dramatic speechifying in favour of quieter contextualisation, it offers a movingly matter-of-fact account of one man’s struggle to lend voice to the silenced, dispossessed inmates of death row. As with the book, the film frames its wider story of poverty, prejudice and institutional racism within an infamous miscarriage of justice – the case of Walter McMillian, an African American condemned to death for a crime that he evidently did not commit. Yet as the intelligently accessible script by Cretton and Andrew Lanham makes clear, McMillian’s case is not the whole picture; rather, it is a totemic example of how a socioeconomic system forged within the furnace of slavery still bears the shackles of its past.

We open in 1987, in Monroe County, Alabama, where pulpwood tree feller McMillian (an almost unrecognisably unimposing Jamie Foxx) is arrested for the murder of white teenager Ronda Morrison. Billboards boast about Monroeville being Harper Lee’s hometown (“Check out the Mockingbird museum,” says Rafe Spall’s district attorney, “it’s one of the great civil rights landmarks of the south”), but the spirit of Atticus Finch does not appear to haunt these halls of justice. By the time the Harvard-educated Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) starts defending death row inmates, McMillian – aka Johnny D – is awaiting execution with little hope of reprieve and even less faith in lawyers. Yet as co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Stevenson is determined to make a difference, and despite his would-be client’s initial dismissals, he makes the journey out to McMillian’s impoverished old neighbourhood to meet the friends and family who know he couldn’t have done it.

For those not already au fait with the credibility-defying details of the real-life case (famously shown on the US news programme 60 Minutes in 1992), I’ll allow the movie to weave its procedural spell, as the revelation of key facts undermines the state’s conviction. Suffice to say that it doesn’t take much scratching before everything starts to fall apart, incurring the hostility of a community (both civil and legal) with much invested in keeping the Morrison case firmly closed.

Posters for Just Mercy are emblazoned with quotes justifiably extolling the film’s “Oscar-worthy” performances, and it’s easy to see its absence from the recent nominations as further evidence that #OscarsSoWhite still applies, a feeling amplified by the similarly depressing lack of recognition for stand-out 2019 turns from the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lopez, Awkwafina, Song Kang-ho et al. Yet the overlooking of Cretton’s movie may have just as much to do with its lack of Oscar-friendly grandstanding, and the fact that, unlike last year’s best picture winner, Green Book, it feels horribly contemporary.

In his excellent 2015 interview with Stevenson for this paper, headlined “America’s Mandela” (a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu), Tim Adams refers repeatedly to Stevenson’s habitual underplaying of any idea of heroism, describing him speaking “quietly and exactly” and noting the “measured, anecdotal” style of his writing in the face of “barely credible inhumanity”. These are the attributes that chime with Cretton’s film-making CV, dating back to his 2013 feature debut, the South by Southwest festival favourite Short Term 12, and the autobiographically inspired 2008 short that preceded it. Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield and Brie Larson all had early roles in Cretton’s acclaimed debut, and Larson returns to work with Cretton again in Just Mercy (as she did in his 2017 oddity The Glass Castle) in the crucial but low-key role of EJI co-founder Eva Ansley. It’s a defiantly unshowy supporting performance, helping to tell the story without ever stealing the spotlight.

Other ensemble roles are equally un-self-serving, a quality that usually proves to be Kryptonite for awards voters. O’Shea Jackson Jr and Rob Morgan are utterly convincing as Anthony Ray Hinton and Herbert Richardson, fellow death row inmates whose guilt or innocence becomes secondary to the grotesque spectre of capital punishment, which is evoked with as much impact as in Tim Robbins’s Oscar-feted 1995 drama Dead Man Walking. Darrell Britt-Gibson lends nervy energy to the role of reluctant witness Darnell Houston, while Tim Blake Nelson is convincingly bent out of shape as McMillian’s primary accuser. As for Foxx and Jordan, their dialled-down discipline pays dividends, lending greater weight to those few moments (a courtroom showdown, a jailhouse breakdown) when Cretton briefly turns up the dramatic heat, with rousing results.

You can get tickets to watch “Just Mercy” online at the Genesis Cinema.

Culled from The Guardian

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