Just Mercy review – star power lifts sturdy, emotive legal drama | Toronto film festival 2019

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It’s hard to fault either the intention or the emotion behind the fact-based legal drama Just Mercy, a sturdy retelling of one of the influential lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson’s most enraging cases. It’s also damn near impossible to fault the performances of Michael B Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as his client, both as good as they’ve ever been. But instead it’s director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose breakout indie Short Term 12 showed such promise, who can’t quite rise to the material or his performers, choosing anonymity over ferocity, making the dullest, safest decision at every turn. It’s not enough to topple the fascinating true story at his film’s centre but it does have a frustrating, flattening effect.

Stevenson, whose legend seems to rise with each year (most recently thanks to an HBO documentary), graduated from Harvard with a dream of making a difference. But unlike many of his peers, his idealism was focused on those at the very bottom of the food chain, death row inmates whom the system had deemed unworthy of due process. In the late 80s he started the Equal Justice Initiative to help right these wrongs and, in some cases, exonerate those who had been wrongly imprisoned.

In the film, he starts meeting prisoners and quickly discovers both the depth of the epidemic and his naivety over how much he can really achieve. When he hears about Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, a man who claims he’s been wrongfully accused of murder, he’s appalled and engaged in equal amounts, inserting himself into the case even if McMillian remains unsure. As he delves further and starts to construct enough evidence for a retrial, he finds the system unwilling to bend for the truth.

The mechanics of the plot might be familiar but the facts of McMillian’s case are so utterly infuriating that Stevenson’s dogged search for justice remains involving throughout. As he explains late in the film, the racial profiling that led local authorities to pin a violent murder on McMillian was, and depressingly still is, indicative of a system that deprioritises people of colour and people living in poorer communities. The case became a blueprint of sorts for Stevenson and given how the specifics don’t sound too dissimilar to cases 30 years on, there’s poignant prescience in its retelling. The facts make us angry enough and so Creton and co-writer Andrew Lanham’s decision to turn the film’s vile bigots, led up by a hammy Rafe Spall, into cartoonish villains snarling from the wings has a hindering effect. It distracts from the reality of the case and of ongoing cases such as this, turning racists into pantomime bad guys rather than presenting them far more chillingly as real people who have normalised their hatred.

The film is far more successful in its portrayal of the good guys. As the woman who helped Stevenson set up his non-profit, Brie Larson is solid but it’s the two men at the film’s centre who truly steal our attention. Jordan’s movie star credentials have been affirmed time and time again at this stage but it remains a joy to see him lead and here he dials back his trademark charm for a more understated turn that remains as effective as anything we’ve seen him do. Stevenson believed in fairness above all else and the scenes that cut deepest are when we see Jordan’s quiet outrage at how race tips the scale, for him and for those around him. His heroism is that much more effective because of the simplicity underpinning it and Jordan’s performance. He’s a man of the law who wants a just system, regardless of race and income, and it’s humbling and stirring to see him try to achieve this. Foxx hasn’t done much that’s memorable for so long now that it’s easy to forget just what an accomplished actor he is but he’s excellent here, avoiding an overly mannered character bit and delivering a powerfully restrained portrait of a man who just wants to go home.

Both performances could well enter the awards race but the film suffers from Creton’s workmanlike direction. The score, the cinematography, the film’s overall feel – it didn’t need to be this overwhelmingly average. I understand the need to allow the facts breathing space but still, a punchier, angrier, more confidently made film would have been possible without distracting from the truth.

Just Mercy is a straightforward, no-frills drama that does have an undeniably emotive effect. The finale in particular, although it perhaps goes one big speech too far, is incredibly moving and the film’s epilogue reminds you that Stevenson’s brave, important work is sadly not over.

• This article was amended on 9 September 2019 and 27 January 2020 to correct the name of the character Walter McMillian.

Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Just Mercy review – star power lifts sturdy, emotive legal drama | Toronto film festival 2019

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