Packing all the drama of a John Grisham courtroom thriller without the sensationalism, Just Mercy crafts an unfortunately timely portrait of systemic racism, yet tempers it with a potentially unifying message of perseverance and love.
The fact-based tale of Harvard-educated attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his quest to get wrongly convicted African Americans off Alabama’s death row stirs plentiful emotions by depicting unflinching humanity in the face of horrendous oppression.
Though Stevenson’s numerous cases are chronicled in his titular memoir, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12; The Glass Castle) focuses on the late-’80s plight of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was sentenced to die for a murder that he played no part in.
The story’s first hook is its egregious injustice. Audience investment is further galvanized by the incredible bigotry and corruption Stevenson encounters in his investigation, as well as the outpouring of love from a black community unaccustomed to the young lawyer’s devotion and kindness.
Jordan, Foxx and Brie Larson (as Stevenson’s colleague Eva Ansley) are all in top form, but it’s a disfigured Tim Blake Nelson who steals each of his scenes as the witness whose questionable testimony could set Johnny D free.
Though far from the flashiest film on a stylistic level, Just Mercy’s straightforward visuals nicely match the tone of the narrative and let the film’s powerful writing and performances stand out even more clearly.
Rarely has the value of a human life received such a soulful, soaring cinematic presentation. Viewers are destined to be floored — and having tissues on hand is highly recommended.
Starts Jan. 10 at Grail Moviehouse