‘Just Mercy’ brings earnest message
The starry based-on-a-true-story social-justice tale “Just Mercy” made a powerful impression in its world premiere Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, drawing an emotional response for the courtroom drama led by Michael B. Jordan’s crusading attorney and Jamie Foxx’s wrongly imprisoned Death Row inmate.
“Just Mercy” had been one of the festival’s most anticipated premieres. The film stars Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, founder of Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative. Foxx plays Walter McMillian, who in 1988 was sentenced to death for the murder of a local young white woman.
Made in the tradition of a Civil Rights drama but set in more contemporary times, “Just Mercy” confronts larger social issues including criminal justice reform, the death penalty and racial profiling. Based on Stevenson’s 2014 book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”), the film is also a kind of tribute to Stevenson’s activist legal work.
Jordan, who has starred in Marvel’s “Black Panther” and 2015’s “Fantastic Four”, said Stevenson is “a real-life superhero.” He called making the film “one of the most enjoyable experiences that I’ve had.”
“I felt like I had a great deal of pressure to get it right,” said Jordan following the screening. “And I felt honored to be able to carry that weight.”
Initial reviews were warm for what critics called a respectful and earnest message movie. But praise was especially heaped on the movie’s performances, including Jordan and Foxx. Both stars are expected to be contenders for next year’s Academy Awards. Warner Bros is set to release “Just Mercy”, which co-stars Rob Morgan, Brie Larson and O’Shea Jackson Jr, on Dec 25.
Foxx said he drew on personal experience for his performance. McMillian was ultimately exonerated in 1993 after his case became nationwide news, including a segment on “60 Minutes” that illustrated how local police framed McMillian with a false witness.
“I understood a lot of things before we even started,” said Foxx, noting his upbringing in small-town Texas. “I understand what it is, even now today, if I’m driving in my nice car in my nice neighborhood and I see that police officer, it still makes me feel like something could happen.”
Stevenson said the evening would only fuel him in his continuing work for criminal justice reform.
“All of these talented people make it a little easier to see what’s at stake when we tolerate injustice, what we lose when we put up with inequality, what we suffer when we permit discrimination and bigotry to rule and shape our lives,” said Stevenson, gesturing to the movie’s cast.
There’s a sequence in “Just Mercy” – one of many – that will shake you to your soul. It’s the late 1980s, and Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young African-American lawyer in crisp gray suits and neckties, with a degree from Harvard, has come to stay in Monroe County, Alabama, to take on the cases of death-row inmates who are innocent. His most urgent client is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), known as Johnny D., who was railroaded, in a flagrant way, for the murder of a teenage white girl. But Stevenson has other cases on his plate too, like that of Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), who did commit the crime he was convicted of. He set off a bomb on a woman’s porch and killed her.
Stevenson has failed to win him a stay of execution, and now the moment of awful truth has arrived: Herbert is going to die in the electric chair. Rob Morgan, who plays him, looks like a sallow, morose Don Cheadle, and he uses Herb’s stutter to communicate an underlying melancholy. Herbert, a Vietnam veteran who lost some of his marbles in the war, isn’t trying to escape the crime he committed; quite the contrary, he’s drowning in guilt. Yet the prospect of death now looms over him with a certitude he finds surreal. “It’s different from ‘Nam”, he says with the blankness of defeat. “I had a chance there.”
On this day of his death, his head and eyebrows get shaved, which leaves him looking like an alien, and more people have been nice to him than on any other day of his life. He’s twitchy, full of dread, a delicate ghost of a man. As he’s strapped into the chair, and “The Old Rugged Cross” plays over the prison’s sound system, and the prisoners use their tin cups to bang on the bars of their cells, the movie brings us disturbingly close to his terror. What we see is that it isn’t just the fear of dying. It’s the horrific realization that his death is part of a system of killing.
That system, with death row as a morbid extension of slavery, is what “Just Mercy” is about. The movie is a true-life legal drama, or maybe we should call it a Civil Rights drama – though part of its special emotional texture is that Bryan Stevenson, in setting out to save the lives of men he thinks of as brothers, and to bring justice to a place where the rule of law is treated as a fig leaf for violence, is fighting for Civil Rights at the moment when America has moved on, dropping that battle from its headlines, as if the fight were no longer necessary. Been there, accomplished that! (Or so said large swatches of white America.) Bryan, from Delaware, has come to the Deep South to carry on the fight in the belly of the beast. (Agencies)
By Jake Coyle