Released: 23rd January
Seen: 6th September
Racial injustice is a topic that never ever makes anything controversial or hard to talk about. Never, I never ever go “oh how do I open this review” when I watch any film about racial justice because surely it is a non-controversial topic that I can never say anything wrong about, right? Of course not, that’s impossible but yes today I’m reviewing a movie, specifically Just Mercy, that does that thing where it tries to remind people “Hey, the justice system as it currently exists has a horrific problem regarding race that disproportionately affects people of colour and it would be great if someone would do something about that” because apparently that’s a thing we still need to be reminded of in the year 2020 because some mouthbreathers don’t seem to realise that there’s this big horrific problem so maybe they’ll pay attention if they hear it from Jamie Foxx, Michael B Jordan and Brie Larson in a legal drama… and a really good legal drama, like one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
Just Mercy takes on the real case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) who was arrested, tried and convicted of a murder that has placed him on death row. This case gets reopened, however, when a young lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) founds the Equal Justice Initiative along with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) and offers to look over the cases of death row inmates to ensure they got proper representation. While looking over Walter’s case, Bryan notices that the entire case revolved around one contradictory witness statement by a felon who was seemingly given a plea to testify. As Bryan tries to get Walter a new trial, he will come face to face with the parts of the justice system that many don’t want to admit is there and he will have to overcome the systemic racism that essentially put Walter in prison in order to get his client out.
It’s a little depressing that in 2020 that a story about a wrongfully convicted black man from 1989 would still have so much relevance but it does, and the filmmakers know it does. There are many moments throughout Just Mercy where they might as well just have someone turn to camera to say “Notice how this is still going on today?”. The film doesn’t pull its punches, it has a point to make and goddamn is it going to make it with every chance it can get.
It’s not preachy, it’s blunt. It wants you to pay attention to what it’s saying and makes it very easy to do so, the 2 hours it asks of you goes by very quickly and it’s incredibly engaging. Not only does the film want to make a very important point about how easily people of colour get wrongfully convicted based on shoddy evidence, it keeps reminding us of the larger point that when the wrong person is convicted that the real bad guy will still be free, a point that seems to not connect for some people. This film wants to hammer that home and does so incredibly.
Every point Just Mercy tries to make is important and it delivers, thanks largely to the fantastic direction by Destin Daniel Cretton who just got great performances out of everyone. Every single person on camera and off brought it and you can tell they had a steady hand at the wheel guiding them. Not that our three leads even need that, all of them are so compelling (though this film spends most of its time with Jamie and Michael) that they make this film enjoyable, even when it gets into the emotional heavy topics at the centre of this film.
Even if you could, somehow, ignore the heavy ideas brought up during Just Mercy and divorce it from the real world people that it’s based on and just treat it like a normal legal drama (and you shouldn’t be doing that) it’s still amazing, wonderfully paced and full of powerful moments that are practically designed to pull on your heartstrings until you can’t hold back the tears. On its own as a simple legal drama this movie will get you but in full context it makes you want to get out and make sure this kind of injustice doesn’t happen again.
Just Mercy is powerful, and it knows it. It’s aware of the power it holds and it uses it well. Every scene is electrifying, every big moment lands just right, every performance is incredible and every minute of it feels all too relevant to events we’re still dealing with today.