‘JUST Mercy’ is a socially relevant movie with noble intentions about a real life crusading black lawyer fighting injustice. It was released in December in time for the Oscars. It’s pretty well-crafted and quite affecting, but was ignored as the black movie that got nominations was “Harriet”, also a true story about a slave who turned abolitionist. Its star and title-roler, Cynthia Erivo, is now nominated as Oscar best actress.
“Just Mercy” is based on a memoir written by Bryan Stevenson, a black lawyer from Delaware who travels down south to Alabama in 1989 to help black people who cannot afford to pay high-priced lawyers to represent them. But the movie starts with Oscar awardee Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillan, a man wrongly convicted for the 1986 murder of an 18-year old white girl. He was an unfortunate soul who just happened to be in the vicinity of the crime and used by law enforcers as a scapegoat to pacify an angry public.
We first see Bryan, played by Michael B. Jourdan, who wants to show he can do serious lead roles other than “Creed” (where he’s a boxer) and “Black Panther” (where he’s the villain), as a law intern who talks to a black prisoner who then inspires his idealism to be of service to black men like him who’ve been wronged by the bigoted justice system.
With the help of an anti-death penalty activist, Eva Ansley (played by Oscar winner Brie Larson, taking off her Captain Marvel costume for something more realistic), he puts up the Equal Justice Initiatives to help death row inmates. He looks into the case of the hapless Walter, who’s been languishing in death row, and sees that the evidence against him relies solely on the testimony of a convicted felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who has given an unbelievable testimony for him to get a lighter sentence for his own case.
Bryan becomes driven in seeking justice for Walter and fights an uphill battle. with racially prejudiced white lawyers and cops opposing him all the way, to the point of his being arrested for perjury. His own witnesses to prove that Walter is innocent are intimidated. Bryan talks to Myers himself, who confesses that he was just forced to give his story after he was threatened to be executed in the electric chair.
Bryan appeals for a retrial for Walter but the local court refuses to grant one. He then uses media and shows up in the popular news and public affairs show, “60 MInutes” to get public support. He then files an appeal in the Alabama Supreme Court, which overturns the decision of the lower court and its trumped up charges.
Walter is at last granted his retrial. The case is finally dismissed and Walter regains his freedom.The epilogue says he remained friends with Bryan until he died in 2013. Bryan and Eva conntinue in their fight for justice.
Michael B. Jourdan invests his role as the do-gooding lawyer with the right mixture of idealism and sense of righteousness. He is very credible as the very dedicated lawyer who is not discouraged by personal threats against him and serious legal setbacks. We particulary like that scene where a white security guard orders him to disrobe totally.
It was very demeaning, humiliating, and you can see the rage oozing out of his eyes. His and Walter’s victory is made all the more sweet by the fact that we know that the odds are posed not only against his client but also against him as the well-meaning lawyer.
Brie Larson plays a relatively minor supporting role but she manages to milk it for all its worth. Jamie Foxx turns in a laudable performance as Walter, almost as meaty as his portrayal of Ray Charles that won him an Oscar.
“Just Mercy” reminds us of other films that incense you as a viewer because of the gross injustice committed to the victims, notably “The Hurricane” with Denzel Washington as a boxer also wrongly accused for murder, and the recent Netflix TV series, “When they See Us”, about five young men wrongly accused of attacking and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989.
It also brought back memories of one our most well loved films of all time, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which really made an impact with us when we first saw it as a teenager in 1963 and which we’ve since viewed repeatedly. Based on the novel of Harper Lee, who’s also from Alabama, it starred Gregory Peck in the iconic role of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer defending a black man. We will never forget child actress Mary Badham as Scout, his daughter from whose perspective we see the story. To us, it has really withstood the test of time.