Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest film, “Just Mercy,” is a capital-P Prestige Hollywood Drama, the kind Hollywood loves. It’s a true life story with a genuine hero, a social justice theme, an underdog and classic feel-good vibes. So why didn’t Warner Brothers push it for more awards contention?
Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who opens the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, not the friendliest state for African-Americans. His focus is on death row inmates who are not receiving or have not received a decent shake at a fair trial. Among his clients is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), and in digging into his case Stevenson realizes it’s pretty clear that McMillian is innocent, but got bulldozed by an angry, racist group of people in positions of power. Brie Larson plays Stevenson’s colleague who helps set up and operate the initiative. Together, they embark on a campaign to overturn McMillian’s verdict and sentence.
It’s a powerful, moving story filled with the kinds of nice, small touches that Cretton excels at. A courtroom scene where lines of sight play an important role in getting a key witness to testify is played out on two levels: dialogue and body language; in another, McMillian looks at the literal death row, seeming to appreciate it for the first time. In another scene where Stevenson’s faith is shaken, we see him attending a Mass, but hear only composer Joel P. West’s score. A fellow inmate gets the electric chair and the film shows us the details and protocol of how the state executes a citizen.
These smaller details surround the more expected scenes of emotional fury and sadness, played well as they are by a great cast led by Jordan. Besides Oscar winners Larson and Foxx, there’s also Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall, Rob Morgan and “Barry’s” Darrell Britt-Gibson. Occasionally some sequences feel staged for an “Oscar clip”-type speech or moment, but it’s hard to find fault when the acting is at this level, and the deftness with which Cretton tells the story carries you to its cathartic denouement.
“Just Mercy” is now playing exclusively in Ayala Cinemas.