(2019) (Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx) (PG-13)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Drama: A young, idealistic lawyer moves to the deep South and tries to prove that a middle-aged man on death row is innocent.
- It's the late 1980s and Bryan Stevenson (MICHAEL B. JORDAN) is a young, idealistic lawyer who's moved from Delaware to Monroe County, Alabama to provide legal services to black men on death row there. With just the assistance of his white paralegal, Eva Ansley (BRIE LARSON), Bryan visits the local prison and, also being a black man, encounters blatant racism himself. That isn't surprising to one inmate, Walter McMillian (JAMIE FOXX), a.k.a. Johnny D., who's faced that his entire life culminating in him recently being falsely accused, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white teenage girl.
While Walter spends his days commiserating with fellow death row inmates Anthony Ray Hinton (O'SHEA JACKSON JR.) and Herbert Richardson (ROB MORGAN) -- the latter being a Vietnam War vet suffering from PTSD -- Bryan sets out working on Walter's case, but obviously gets nowhere with the racist sheriff, Tom Tate (MICHAL HARDING), or new District Attorney Tommy Chapman (RAFE SPALL).
But Walter's family -- even including his wife, Minnie (KARAN KENDRICK), who he cheated on -- is happy that he's handling the legal matters for free, and Bryan thinks he's uncovered important facts when he learns that the prosecution's main witness, Ralph Myers (TIM BLAKE NELSON), is a self-serving felon whose testimony was forced by others.
From that point on, Bryan races against time to prove Walter's innocence before he becomes yet another inmate on death row to be executed.
- OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
- With only brief research done on my part, it's been difficult to pinpoint a specific number verified by multiple sources, but there appears to be little doubt that more than 150 people once sentenced to death row were subsequently exonerated and released from prison. That's a shockingly high number that proves there's a major fault in the system and makes one question how many more innocent people -- many without the connections or financial means to prove their innocence -- are still facing execution for a crime they didn't commit.
Not surprisingly, this has caught the attention of social activists, reporters, authors and filmmakers who do their part to bring this travesty of the justice system to light. The latest to hit the big screen is "Just Mercy," a well-made and engaging drama that's based on the real-life story of Walter "Johnny D." McMillian, an African-American pulpwood worker from Monroeville, Alabama who was found guilty and sentenced to be executed for the 1986 murder of white teenager Ronda Morrison.
Despite a large number of witnesses -- including a police officer -- who placed McMillian elsewhere at the time of the killing, the man was railroaded by racially motivated white men. That included a judge who overruled the maximum penalty allowed and turned the jury-ordered life sentence to that of death, returning the innocent man to death row where he had already spent one and a half years BEFORE the trial ever began.
Jamie Foxx plays the real-life man and believably creates a soul who's seething with anger inside but, for the most part, keeps himself composed in a resigned way, having lived his entire life dealing with such racially inspired matters. He tries to impart such wisdom to a young, idealistic lawyer (Michael B. Jordan) from the north who's showed up in the deep South hoping to deliver justice to the wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
Of course, Harvard Law grad Bryan Stevenson has already just experienced that firsthand, what with being forced to strip down buck naked by a white guard -- in a "you better watch out boy" power move -- before being allowed entry into the prison.
From that point on -- and while trying to help other death row inmates such as Anthony Ray Hinton (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), the latter being a 'Nam vet whose PTSD resulted in him committing a heinous crime -- and with the help of his white paralegal (Brie Larson), the young, righteous attorney confronts the systemic racism head-on while digging for witnesses, facts and wrongdoing that might exonerate his client.
If there's one singular drawback to the film, it's that we've seen this sort of tale many times before and thus can fairly easily predict the step-by-step nature of the screenplay by writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham who've adapted Stevenson's 2014 novelization of the true events, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption." That includes intimidation orchestrated by the local sheriff (Michael Harding) who arrested Walter and the new D.A. (Rafe Spall) who offers little in the way of assistance as those two are thick as thieves in such matters.
Thankfully, all involved put more than enough energy and purpose into the material both behind and in front of the camera (Jordan and especially Foxx deliver strong performances) that you truly care what happens and root for the underdogs to prevail. For that, and being yet another example of a work bringing attention to a broken and flawed justice, penal and societal system, "Just Mercy" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.
Reviewed November 27, 2019 / Posted January 10, 2020
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