By Benjamin Akpan
Here’s the gist of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy: a Black man is stopped, arrested, and baselessly convicted of a murder he clearly did not commit. A White felon is coerced into making a false testimony against him. The convicted is put on death row, while a young black lawyer fresh out of Harvard is hell bent on exonerating the accused. It is based on a true story, and it is a finely told one.
Destin Daniel Cretton has never been afraid to tackle tough subjects. In his 2013 drama Short Term 12, Cretton set his hand to troubled teenagers with intense naturalness and deep empathy. Once again, he returns to form, taking on the incredibly true story of Bryan Stevenson (who happens to be heavily involved in the writing process), thereby providing further proof of his flair for hard-hitting subjects. Unlike Short Term 12, however, Just Mercy falls short of greatness – and Cretton has himself to blame.
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There’s nothing particularly new or surprising about Stevenson’s story, first published in his 2014 memoir of the same name, and Cretton stays reservedly true to it. The film gradually makes its way to an ending that we all know and expect, and Cretton doesn’t attempt to shock us with risible ideas in a bid to buff up the plot of this uncomplicated account. Rather, he relegates to the background, giving unrestrained control to the characters and the actors behind them.
As Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan is bold, yet understated, carefully treading the fine line between credulity and ardency. Stevenson is very eager to effect change, but many around him — and the turn of events — quickly remind him that he is but a boy. Still, Jordan’s performance is never obtrusive; he takes steady charge and commands the scenes effortlessly, and his delivery of countless tear-stained courtroom monologues is smooth and innocuous.
But this is ultimately Jamie Foxx’s show — he’s unstoppable as Walter McMillan, a stoic death row inmate who’s lost all sense of hope in the world, following denials of previous appeals to overturn a conviction for a crime he did not commit. The depths of hurt and resentment at his situation is performed with the type of complexity that only an Academy Award winner like him can achieve.
It is in its third act that the film is most poignant: countless rejections set the stage for a massive impassionate triumph. But it is also at this point that the film begins to crack. Being a real-life experience, Just Mercy is incredibly dramatic in every sense of the word and is emotionally moving in itself. Beyond that is a tiringly formulaic style of storytelling, packed with emotional beats so clearly calculated and delineated that it becomes cloying. There is a sheer cheesiness (for lack of a better word) that permeates the final hour of the movie, slowly revealing a generic procedural previously masked behind the prime array of performances.
Clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes, Just Mercy is unable to justify its lengthy runtime. Cretton’s directorial distance is fairly substantiated in the way he allows the story to tell itself, giving the truth all the room it needs to develop. But such a lack of firm control causes a lag in the pacing and editing of the final project. The film would’ve benefitted from having an additional fifteen minutes trimmed, thereby potentially producing a tighter body of work overall.
Nevertheless, Just Mercy is an important story framed with a potent sense of urgency that many other films of this calibre seem to lack. It might be conventional in its telling, but this story is one that needs to be told regardless. It will no doubt start a contentious discussion about America’s Justice System, where – as the movie points out in the end – many are put on death row based on wrongful convictions; plus, its emotive effect is undeniable. Even though its structure is mostly uninventive, it is an exultant look at the lives of outstanding individuals looking to improve and elevate the conditions of Black people today – one false conviction after the other.
*Editor’s Note: This film was originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘19, and is slated for release by Warner Bros. Pictures on December 25, 2019.