Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy (Photo: Warner)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Destin Daniel Cretton
STARS Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx
(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)
With the world as his oyster, Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson chose to shuck the easy career path and instead devote himself to prying open the racial inequality that existed in Alabama. That, in a nutshell, is the impetus for the based-on-fact story at the center of Just Mercy.
Written (with Andrew Lanham) and directed by Short Term 12’s Destin Daniel Cretton, Just Mercy primarily centers on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man who in 1987 was arrested and prematurely placed on Death Row for the murder of a white teenage girl. The evidence supporting McMillian’s claims of innocence was overwhelming, but because McMillian had previously been having an affair with a white woman, because the local law had no other suspects, and because, well, this was Alabama, Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) and his fellow racists not only buried important evidence but also coerced a handful of people (mainly criminals already serving time) to provide false testimony that further implicated McMillian. It isn’t until Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives on the scene that there’s even a glimmer of hope that McMillian will be exonerated and thus avoid the electric chair. Still, it’s an uphill battle, with the hill about as daunting as Everest.
An earnest and important movie, Just Mercy is consistently involving, with the particulars of the case and the falsehoods used as a battering ram against McMillian’s innocence both triggering ample waves of audience outrage. I won’t reveal McMillian’s ultimate courtroom fate (though it’s not hard to guess, given that inspirational title), but I will allow that it’s not a happily-ever-after tale in one respect. The real-life Sheriff Tate was never punished for his abhorrent behavior but was instead re-elected seven more times after the incident by the good people of Alabama.