Just Mercy (2019)

Just Mercy first published by Sight & Sound, February 2020 (here modified)

Review: Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy takes place in Monroeville, Alabama – also the birthplace of author Harper Lee and the setting for her 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird. In the film, locals seem confused, referring to Lee’s lawyer protagonist Atticus Finch as though he were a real person rather than a literary figment. Also a lawyer, and as concerned as Finch with an equality of justice that transcends race and class, Just Mercy‘s hero Bryan Stevenson is no fiction – indeed the film is based on the real Stevenson‘s best-selling 2014 memoir. In a town where, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, race relations remain as tense as in Lee’s 1930s, Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is also a corrective to Finch: no white knight riding in to save the South’s downtrodden black community, but himself a black man from the same socioeconomic background as the men on death row whom he defends. 

Most of the film concerns Stevenson’s attempts over many years to get Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) cleared of the rape and murder charges for which he has clearly been framed by a bigoted sheriff – but any diatribe against the iniquities of America’s death penalty is better served by focusing on the plainly guilty than on the innocent, and accordingly a subplot involves Stevenson taking the case of PTSD-afflicted Vietnam veteran Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) who openly admits to his crime but whose execution is still shown to be a miscarriage of justice. This is an earnest and important film about the still festering wound of race in today’s America – although when pitted against inveterate, sneering prejudice, its protagonist’s one-note saintliness, however real, does not make for the most compelling drama. Just Mercy has, in Jordan’s Stevenson, an excellent update of Atticus Finch, but it sorely lacks a Scout

Synopsis: In 1989, novice lawyer Bryan Stevenson sets up an equal rights initiative in Monroeville, Alabama, and takes the case of Walter McMillan, on death row after being falsely accused of murder. After persuading state witness Ralph Myers to change his testimony, Stevenson eventually clears McMillan.

Anton Bitel