Review: ‘Just Mercy’ Is Unflinching And Earnest

Review: ‘Just Mercy’ Is Unflinching And Earnest

There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong with “Just Mercy,” but the script, acting, and directing come together to present a powerful film. Michael B. Jordan, left, and Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy.”(Jake Giles Netter / Warner Bros. Pictures)

There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong with the star-studded film “Just Mercy,” about the legal fight to free an innocent Black man from Alabama who was on death row. The film could have been burdened down with heavy social messages, or taken too lightly to express the magnitude of the racially infused case. But according to NPR’s Andrew Lapin, the script, based on the attorney Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 bestseller, the acting, and the directing come together to present a powerful film.

Michael B. Jordan portrays Stevenson, who is Black, while Jamie Foxx plays wrongly convicted Walter McMillian, who spent six years on death row for a murder he clearly did not commit.

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“The invocation of race, class, and setting in McMillian’s case is unmissable — particularly since he was from Monroeville, Alabama, home of Harper Lee and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ and residents seemed to be living out a remake of her novel with zero lessons learned. We’re in a climate of heightened public awareness around these disparities in the criminal justice system, which means stories like this have become cultural flashpoints for reasons entirely beyond the crime itself,” wrote Lapin.

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According to Lapin, “Just Mercy” is a well-balanced film. 

“With all this weighted context, the fact that “Just Mercy” works is a pleasant surprise. Not only does the drama grant respect and dignity to the key figures of the original case, but writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (adapting the book with co-writer Andrew Lanham) also touches on larger issues about the morality of the death penalty at large,” he wrote.

The film follows Stevenson arrives in Montgomery in 1989 to launch the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to death row cases in Alabama. One of his first cases under the Initiative is that of McMillian’s. McMillian had been convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman, and he was found guilty mainly on “fantastical” witness testimony. McMillian always maintained his innocence even though he seemed to have accepted his fate of being on death row.

“What this movie really does well is bring the straightforward politics of a Mockingbird-esque crusading legal drama into our modern dialogue around mass incarceration and the death penalty. And even the happy ending leaves us with the unsettling knowledge that we’re still far too deep in these woods,” Lapin concluded.