Middleburg Review: ‘Just Mercy’, Jamie Foxx Is A Scene-Stealer In The Powerful But Slightly Predictable Legal Drama

There seems to be at least one every single year. Last year it was Green Book and If Beale Street Could Talk. In 2016 it was MoonlightLoving, and Hidden Figures. In 2014, Selma. In 2013, 12 Years a Slave. Every single year there seems to be a film about race and oppression that captures the Academy’s attention. These films are effective in varying degrees, some accused of being emotionally manipulative and driven by stereotypes, some quietly brilliant, pushing cinema forward as a whole. This year’s contender could very well be Just Mercy, a film that pushes the race conversation from the black vs. white narrative and into one about systemic racism, bookended by powerful but subtle performances and effective direction. 

Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is driving home from work on an old Alabama back road when he is arrested for the murder of 18-year-old white woman Ronda Morrison. Despite his pleas that he was innocent, Walter, called Johnny D., is sentenced very quickly sentenced to death row in 1988. The film opens up about six years later after Yankee lawyer Bryan Stevenson moves to Monroeville Alabama, (ironically the home of To Kill A Mocking Bird author, Harper Lee, as all the townspeople like to point out) to open up the Equal Justice Initiative (EPI), a law firm dedicated to the representation of death row inmates. As Bryan tries to assimilate to rural Alabama with the help of white woman and EPI office manager, Eva Ansley, Bryan comes across Johnny D.’s case and finds a stunning revelation. The career criminal (Tim Blake Nelson) whose testimony is the sole reason Johnny D. was implicated in the crime, contradicted himself on the stand and received a reduced sentence.


As Bryan runs around rural Alabama looking for the truth, more questions come to the surface about just how badly the justice system failed Johnny D., and how many will do anything to keep him on death row, including a cowardly District Attorney (Rafe Spall) and a manipulative and bigoted sheriff (Michael Harding). Based on true events and Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the film version reveals the horrors of being on death row and a broken justice system, wrapped up in an emotional and powerful, at times too predictable, narrative. 

Providing the same sensitivity and quiet force shown in 2013’s Short Term 12, director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton’s subtle direction doesn’t exploit the subject matter. The film doesn’t feel emotionally manipulative, that’s in part to Cretton staying away from the conventions of the genre, using newscasts to push the drama forward and giving the characters room to breathe. The script, co-written with Andrew Lanham, does feel too sweet at times and certain lines, especially the ones spoken by a racist individual, seem cliche. 


While Michael B. Jordan provides a strong and stable presence as a young lawyer taking on the racist establishment, this movie is really Jamie Foxx’s. He doesn’t overplay Johnny D., instead, bringing disillusionment and a quiet hope to the forefront of his heartbreaking performance. He steals the show, making an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor possibly imminent.

Though Brie Larson isn’t given too much to do, she still plays Eva as a determined calming force, providing comedic relief and guidance as needed. Becoming a familiar face in Cretton’s work, this is her 3rdcollaboration with the director and though she has very much a supporting role, Cretton knows how to use her effectively as the film’s emotional anchor, despite little screen time. Tim Blake Nelson and O’Shea Jackson Jr. shine in supporting roles, each begging for their own spinoffs. 


Just Mercy doesn’t feel like the race movie that we are used to. There’s no lead white character who learns the error of their ignorantly racist ways. There is a white prison guard that goes on this journey, but because he is not the focus of the film and his realization comes from seeing how systemic racism within the prison system affects predominantly black individuals, this storyline doesn’t seem tired. By taking whiteness and white feelings out of the redemption arch, the film shines a light on our own American institutions and how they have set up an entire demographic of people to fail. If Ava DuVernay’s 13th was the factual story of how the modern American prison system is unfairly stacked against people of color, Just Mercy is the emotional narrative, bringing awareness to the death penalty, racial bias, and wrongful convictions. 

Rating: 3.5 Out of 5


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