Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Review: "Just Mercy"

“Just Mercy” is a fire-and-brimstone drama about the death penalty that brooks no disagreement. The hero is a crusading lawyer fighting to free a wrongfully convicted man from death row, and the villains are sneering cracker racists who refuse to admit when they’re wrong because it would somehow upset the entrenched Old South order of whites over blacks.

This is the sort of movie with multiple text rolls during the end credits that laud the virtuous while lamenting how much left there is to do (complete with debatable statistics).

Set in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, it’s very much a civil rights message in the spirit the 1960s, a la “Mississippi Burning” or “Malcolm X.”

I might quibble with the film’s politics but not with its artistic achievement. “Just Mercy” is a terrifically emotional drama that really gets your juices pumping. There are times where you identify so strongly with the main character, attorney Bryan Stevenson played by Michael B. Jordan, that you want to leap through the screen and strangle his antagonists.

Stevenson was a Harvard-trained lawyer -- I lost count of how many times folks in the movie make note of “Harvard” -- who decided to eschew the big law firms to start a legal defense fund for convicted murderers in Alabama called the Equal Justice Initiative. Before Stephenson arrived, no Alabama death row inmate had ever had his sentence set aside.

As the movie presents him, this isn’t really so much a character as a symbol. We leave the theater knowing little more about the real Bryan Stevenson than we did going in.

“Cute. Married?” an older black woman asks about Stevenson just of earshot. “Married to his work,” his colleague responds.

So it goes with his portrayal by screenwriters Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton, based on Stevenson’s own memoir. Cretton, who made the wonderful “Short Term 12” that boosted the career of Brie Larson and launched that of Lakeith Stanfield, also directs.

Speaking of Larson, she shows up in a supporting role as Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s legal aid who went against her own community to fight for death row inmates. She starts out as a feisty figure, and then the movie forgets about her.

The two key supporting performers are Jamie Foxx and Tim Blake Nelson as, respectively, Walter “Johnnie D.” McMillian and Ralph Myers, both convicted murderers. The difference being that Myers, a white man, did his crime and pinned another on the black McMillian at the behest of the local sheriff (a chilling Michael Harding). Myers received a light sentence and McMillian got the death penalty, despite overwhelming evidence that he was somewhere else at the time an 18-year-old white pharmacy worker was gunned down.

These are two ravishingly good performances that will likely compete for an Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category, which tends to be very competitive. Foxx gives McMillian a sort of unsophisticated dignity beneath his seething anger -- shades of Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Nelson, wearing burn scar makeup and an assortment of tics, seems ready to shuck out of his own skin.

Two other actors of note: Rafe Spall plays Tommy Champan, the young public-defender-turned-DA who seems like he might be sympathetic but enforces justice with an inordinate emphasis on the blindness aspect.

And Rob Morgan is magnificent as Herbert Richardson, another death row inmate. Richardson is a Vietnam vet suffering from PSTD who bears heavy shame for setting the bomb that killed someone -- an act he does not deny in its effects, in contrast to his intent.

The Richardson sequence is powerful, so much so that at times it ends up detracting from McMillian’s story rather than underscoring it or acting as counterpoint. For a while it actually becomes his movie, and indeed it felt like his story could support its own entire film.

At a quarter-past the two-hour mark, “Justice Mercy” could have done with some judicious paring. But it’s hard to deny how compelling this movie is in a gut-punch way.

It won’t get any awards for subtlety, but when you’re dealing with the life-and-death reality of a justice system that has too often convicted African-Americans for crimes they didn’t commit, how much equivocation do we really need?

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