It’s the late 80s, and Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in the Deep South to exonerate innocent men from execution. Smart, black, and impassioned, Stevenson immediately draws the ire of redneck officials, who don’t want their facade of tranquility ruffled by an Ivy League carpetbagger. Local bumpkins strip-search him, pull him over without cause, and fling epithets every chance they get. It isn’t long before Stevenson zeroes in on the case of a lifetime: Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man railroaded for the murder of a young white woman.
McMillian’s case represents a travesty on two fronts: The flimsy basis for which he is fast-tracked for the electric chair, and the odious efforts of local law enforcements to see it through at all costs. Stevenson enlists a local researcher (Brie Larson) to help him dig through the muck and find the truth of what happened. Their work points to a mentally fragile killer (Tim Blake Nelson), whose eye-witness testimony against McMillian was shaky at best.
Basically, Just Mercy bundles the shoddy, swamp-brained law enforcement of The Thin Blue Line with the firmly entrenched, Stars and Bars bigotry of Mississippi Burning into one undeniably charged movie. This may not breathe the same rarified air as those classics, but Mercy makes a respectable climb up the same mountain. It’s not subtle. Or tidy. But it still has a lot going for it.
We’ll start with the all-star cast. Oscar-winners and nominees sit above the poster title, and they all turn in the pro work you’d expect. Foxx plays McMillian as a man of deep pain and dormant pride, and his performance anchors the entire film. As the righteous man in the den of the devil, Jordan slowly transforms Stevenson from brittle naiveté to boiling indignation. Nelson is absolutely phenomenal as a simple man caught neck-deep in moral quicksand. Only Larson–one of the most compelling actors around–gets stuck with an underwritten role. Her character’s main function is to just watch all these big events with worried fascination.
Like Blue Line, Mercy also benefits from its basis in fact. McMillian’s struggle points to the fallacy of capital punishment, and to just how vulnerable to the impoverished are to becoming innocent victims of it. The film doesn’t need to rail against the death penalty with big melodramatic beats. McMillian is a walking, talking–and convincing–argument against it.
Unfortunately, Mercy still can’t help itself. The script carves out too much time for too many characters. Subplots concerning the plights of other prisoners pad the movie out to 137 minutes. A leaner and meaner Mercy might’ve had even more punch. (The Line Blue Line hit harder than a freight train, and in 2/3 the time of this film.) The ballad of Walter McMillian is sad, harrowing, and inspirational, all at the same time. Just Mercy does best when it steps back and allows his incredible story to simply tell itself.
137 min. PG-13.