If Destin Daniel Cretton can orchestrate a fight scene for Shang Chi as easily he can choke audiences up in Just Mercy, we may need to enter his Marvel directorial debut with protective headgear. From his breakthrough heart-tugger Short Term 12, here his tactics are applied in union with leading men Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx handling proceedings effortlessly, reminding us why we can’t get enough of the former, and there hasn’t been enough of the latter over the past few years.
Jordan plays real-life lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who opened up the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, as a place for prisoners with financial issues to obtain representation and a fair trial. Among his first band of clients is Walter McMillian, aka Johnny D who was hit with the death sentence after being falsely accused of the murder of a white woman in Alabama. Stevenson takes to the case immediately due to its immense lack of evidence and a ropey eyewitness statement (provided by Watchmen’s Tim Blake Nelson in a welcome appearance) that local law enforcement deemed enough to put Johnny D behind bars.
The young lawyer is confident for a retrial – his client, not so much.“In Alabama, you’re guilty from the day you were born,” says Foxx’s inmate, ready to throw what feels like his final swing in a losing battle. With a plethora of roles behind him now, here we get him at his most reserved, neither completely broken by the wrongdoing or enraged by it. He’s simply a tired soul who’s seen it all before and it shows in every look or forlorn glance he throws at Jordan, who is just as compelling.
Sparks begin to show the minute these two talents sit across from one another demonstrating just how far Jordan has come and what he has to show for it. He portrays Stevenson with the solid determination, bottling his frustration at being stopped at every door and document he tries to move forward in. As he’s ushered away from the local sheriff and even falling victim to racial abuse and humiliation himself, your blood will boil as much as he does, but with that said it never really bubbles over, which seems to be a trend for some of the film and its cast.
We can see so many people pushed to breaking point, or have the potential to get there and doing so would up the drama that’s brimming already – it just never does. It also leaves certain talent to be left by the wayside and wonder why they even attended the trial. Former Short Term 12 and Cretton collaborator, Brie Larson appears as Jordan’s partner in the EJI, Eva Ansley, who played a crucial role in the establishment in Stevenson’s groundbreaking establishment but acts more as host and entry point into the uneven lay of Alabama’s land.
Also Rafe Spall as the DA going against Jordan’s ‘laaawyer from outta town’ provides little to no conflict so that when the two do finally go toe-to-toe there’s not much tension to be had. The real talent that maybe even overshadows the films leads are those found behind bars and where the film is elevated because of them.
As compelling as the double act of Foxx and Jordan may be, the surprising gut-punch comes from Rob Morgan as Johnny D’s friend behind bars, Herbert Richardson. The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Stranger Things star gives an immensely emotional turn as PTSD Vietnam vet, Herbert Richardson, who was charged killing a woman after leaving a bomb on her porch. Being held together by McMillian’s advice from the next cell only to fall apart when he gets his ‘date’ leads to what is easily the film’s most emotional and masterfully orchestrated sequences from Cretton and all involved. That being said, it’s a moment that outshines everything that takes place after and where ultimately the main focus should be.
Ultimately, Stevenson and Williard’s story is one that’s without question worth telling, but in the end, it never manages to hit as hard as it should. With incredible actors and one in particularly remarkable performance near enough stealing the show, Just Mercy becomes a just good enough film, rather than the great one it had every reason to be.