Getting together Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan in one film is a hell of a draw. Two fantastic talents, with the right material, can lead to fireworks. Throw in excellent supporting actors from the likes of Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall, and you’ve got a potential firework extravaganza.
Brought to us by Destin Daniel Cretton, a director due to join the MCU next year with his Shang-Chi film, Just Mercy is a legal drama that tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Jordan), a Harvard-educated lawyer who sets up a legal firm defending death-row inmates in Alabama. It explore the racial, and class, divide in the rural, conservative state, revolving around the case of Walter McMillan (Foxx) a black man imprisoned on death row for the murder of a young white woman.
It is made pretty clear at the outset that the state is pinning this charge on McMillan on pretty shaky grounds, but the deeper Bryan digs into the case, the thicker the plot gets, lifting the lid on a deeply prejudiced system that he is determined to fight tooth-and-nail.
The film does a great job from the outset of creating a sympathetic character in Walter, as I say, it’s clear from the very first scenes that the police and state very much want him to be guilty, whether he was anywhere near the crime or not.
Jordan’s character is very much a fresh-faced young lawyer with fire in his eyes and a chip on his shoulder, quite rightly so as we see as the film goes on, and there’s a danger in these kind of films to make the characters one-dimensional, make the lines very much simple from the outset, good and bad, the oppressed and the oppressor, but here, while there is a bit of that on show, there are characters with significantly more grey area, which strikes a nice balance.
Whatever you take from the last paragraph, don’t let it be that this film is wishy-washy with its message; it very much isn’t. It’s a film with a searing message that still seems relevant today, and the way it chooses to show this can be extraordinarily affecting. It’s a film with morals and a message that you are invited to think upon for yourself at its suggestion.
The main moral theme surrounding the film is the justification of the death penalty, a divisive topic to say the least, but I think that no matter which side of the fence you land on, you’d be hard pressed to feel preached to by this film. It isn’t so much directly suggesting that the death penalty is a bad thing, merely presenting you with individual cases and leaving you to make up your own mind, a brave stance to take in the long-run, in an age of such snap judgements and moral panic.
Accompanying the well-crafted narrative is a very broad palate of directorial choices and film-making decisions. The idea of a wrongly accused man seeking justice is by no means a fresh one, but it is given a fresh coat of paint by some complex characters and the situations surrounding them.
At the start of the film, I thought the film was a bit heavy on the extreme close-ups, generally the camera choice employed to easily show the emotions on a characters face, but over-used it can be overwhelming, as the film goes on however, the film finds its stride with its choice of shots, adapting the close-up into different situations, and using wider shots to even better accentuate isolation and separation.
I’d say though, despite how good the story and cinematography can be, the real highlight in this film is the acting. Jamie Foxx is probably the best he’s been since Ray, he’s always been at least watchable in his roles, but he has something to truly get his teeth stuck into here. He builds a complex character with multiple layers, the man who everyone feels is guilty, so much so that he might even believe it a bit himself, that’s verdant ground for an actor, and Foxx delivers hand over fist with this performance.
Jordan is also impressive, slightly more understated as a Harvard lawyer would be, but when the facade falls, you see the character is just as scared as the prisoners he represents. I’ve always liked Jordan as an actor, and this film just adds to my admiration of him.
Apart from a few pacing issues in the middle, this film is an engrossing, and at times harrowing look at the failings of the American justice system, portrayed by brilliantly talented actors, and shot with conviction. A very enjoyable film, with a memorable and deeply moving message at its heart, Just Mercy might just stick in my mind for some time.