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Review: Death row drama ‘Just Mercy’ tells shattering, satisfying tale

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 8, 2020

By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

The stirring, stylish legal drama “Just Mercy” feels familiar on several levels. The story of a wrongly accused man sent to death row, it joins films such as “Dead Man Walking” and the more recent “Clemency” as an affecting examination of how justice is confused with inhumane retribution.

Based on factual events, “Just Mercy” is the story of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, who in 1987 was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit but who was railroaded by a racist and incompetent legal system in Alabama – a story that is as old as the rugged cross itself.

McMillian’s case became famous by way of a “60 Minutes” episode and the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, a brilliant, Harvard-educated attorney who came to his defense and has gone on to become a visionary leader in criminal justice reform.

On a macro and micro level, “Just Mercy” – which takes its title from Stevenson’s book – might feel like something we’ve seen before. But in the judicious hands of director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton, it feels not new exactly but fresh and urgent and more timely than ever.

That’s largely because Cretton, best-known for his exceptionally assured 2013 breakthrough “Short Term 12,” knows exactly when to get out of the way and let Stevenson and McMilllian’s story simply unfold. “Just Mercy” begins in 1987, when McMillian – played in an astonishing comeback performance by Jamie Foxx – is in a forest outside Monroeville where he works as a pulpwood contractor.

Arrested for the murder of a white dry cleaning clerk back in town, McMillian insists he couldn’t have committed the crime (he was at a church fish fry that day along with several witnesses). Still, he winds up on death row, the result of countless assaults on his human and constitutional rights that will continue once he’s there.

McMillian would have been just another statistic of structural racism and irrational fear and revenge had Stevenson not decided to move from the Northeast to Monroeville, where upon his arrival he’s encouraged to visit the “To Kill a Mockingbird” museum and to stand “right where Atticus Finch once stood.”

In “Just Mercy,” the painful and infuriating gaps between myth and reality of the contemporary South aren’t underlined as much as opened up and revealed, allowing audience members to come to conclusions that will range from wincing discomfort to outrage.

Played by Michael B. Jordan with his usual combination of composure and submerged fire, Stevenson is the main protagonist in “Just Mercy,” but this isn’t a biopic. As much as viewers come to admire him for his courage and dedication, they don’t necessarily come to feel they know him.

Similarly, Brie Larson, who plays Eva Ansley, who joined Stevenson in founding the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, is often relegated to little more than providing awkward chunks of earnest exposition. There are moments when “Just Mercy” threatens to become as meandering and mired down as McMillian’s case itself.

But Cretton keeps the narrative on course, leading the audience through the stakes and specifics of Stevenson’s quest with welcome clarity. Perhaps ironically, “Just Mercy” comes most to life on death row, where, when Stevenson first visits him, he’s ordered to submit to a humiliating strip search.

A group of prisoners act as a moving Greek chorus while Stevenson doggedly searches for the truth and McMillian awaits a fate that feels tragically preordained. “That’s how it’s done down here,” McMillian says in one scene; it’s an eloquent if dispiriting summation of the emotional labor it takes to manage the anxiety, aggression and impunity otherwise known as white supremacy.

Foxx, delivering one of the finest performances of his career in a role that involves as dramatic a physical transformation as his Oscar-winning turn in “Ray,” is joined by an equally impressive supporting cast, which includes O’Shea Jackson Jr., Darrell Britt-Gibson and Rob Morgan, who brings enormous sympathy to a prisoner whose extenuating circumstances throw the perversity of the death penalty into heartbreaking relief.

Punctuated by a twitchy, uncannily on-point turn from Tim Blake Nelson as a crucial witness named Ralph Myers, “Just Mercy” is transformed from a mere billboard declaring that racism is bad to an intimate, immediate and deeply moving portrait of the trauma and psychic toll imposed on its victims and practitioners.

Propelled by a liltingly beautiful musical score by Joel P. West, “Just Mercy” keeps its emotions on a low simmer, its absorbing, tautly designed drama finally coming to a climax that is satisfying on one level and absolutely shattering on another.

From its smooth visuals and warm, swinging sounds to its magnificent performances, “Just Mercy” is masterfully constructed to keep us inside a story that otherwise would be too brutal to bear.

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