Michael B. Jordan (left) plays a crusading lawyer who takes up the case of a Death Row inmate (Jamie Foxx) in “Just Mercy.” (Warner Bros)

Michael B. Jordan (left) plays a crusading lawyer who takes up the case of a Death Row inmate (Jamie Foxx) in “Just Mercy.” (Warner Bros)

’Just Mercy’ punches hard at racist criminal justice in Alabama

The film isn’t subtle, but it hits the right notes for a legal drama. Michael B. Jordan plays a crusading lawyer.

The town of Monroeville, Alabama is proud of its associations with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee grew up there and may have based her beloved novel partly on real-life cases involving local black men railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit. Monroeville has a “To Kill a Mockingbird” museum and calls itself the literary capital of Alabama.

It’s also a place that lives with a certain amount of irony, because right in the teeth of all that nice civil-rights nostalgia, Monroeville was home to a serious race-based miscarriage of justice. That one started in 1986, and put an innocent man, Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, on Death Row for six years.

The case gets a movie treatment in “Just Mercy,” which is very aware of the “Mockingbird” connection. In fact, this movie hits its ironies all too hard — it isn’t subtle, but in the end it proves extremely effective.

We discover the story along with Bryan Stevenson (played by “Black Panther” star Michael B. Jordan), an Ivy League lawyer setting up shop in Alabama. He takes on the case of McMillian (played with brooding commitment by Jamie Foxx), who’s embittered by the rigged system and the prospect of his impending execution. (The judge in the case ignored the jury’s recommended verdict of life in prison and imposed the death sentence all on his own.)

The film follows the expected paths of the legal suspense picture, as Stevenson jostles the case along in the face of hostile authorities and trumped-up bureaucracy. It’s one of those infuriating stories in which the truth is repeatedly trashed and the people in charge are accomplished liars.

In fact, part of the film’s power is its portrait of a world in which facts no longer matter—even a carefully-prepared argument can be thrown aside because of the corruption within the system. I’m guessing this might resonate with movie-goers in 2020.

Oscar winner Brie Larson plays one of Stevenson’s associates, and Tim Blake Nelson is skin-crawlingly good as a convict with a connection to McMillian’s case.

If you go by the wisdom that flawed heroes are always more interesting than perfectly noble ones, it might explain why Jordan doesn’t have much to play with as Stevenson. The character is entirely admirable, which leaves the center of the movie a little bland—even if you’d want the real-life Stevenson on your side every time.

“Just Mercy” works as a courtroom drama, but it doesn’t leave race aside. Among other things, there’s a strong implication that McMillian’s bogus arrest came about because he was having an affair with a white woman in Monroeville.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (who wrote the script with Andrew Lanham, from Stevenson’s book) takes a mostly straightforward approach, with the occasional grace note: the way an old-fashioned steamboat casually drifts through the background of one intense conversation about race in America is undoubtedly a reminder of the bad old days.

If this film doesn’t get everything right, it nevertheless lands its punches with authority. Meanwhile, the real Bryan Stevenson is still figuring out how many people are sitting in jail for the wrong reasons.

“Just Mercy” (3 stars)

A true story about a crusading lawyer (Michael B. Jordan) working to get a convict (Jamie Foxx) off Alabama’s Death Row. The movie isn’t subtle, but it punches hard and hits the right notes for a legal drama. With Brie Larson.

Rating: PG-13, for subject matter

Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Pacific Place, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Cameron Hewitt
Switzerland's Lauterbrunnen Valley looks pastoral but it hides a powerful dose of natural wonder.
Rick Steves’ Europe: In the Swiss Alps, the laws of nature rule

The travel guru learned to respect the power of nature in the shadow of Switzerland’s towering Jungfrau.

Inside Elle Marie Hair Studio in Smokey Point. (Provided by Acacia Delzer)
The best hair salon in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied. Here are the results.

For more than a thousand years, Czech leaders – from kings and emperors to Nazis, communists, and presidents – have ruled from Prague Castle, regally perched on a hill above the Vltava River. Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli
Rick Steves’ Europe: History lives in Prague and its hilltop castle

It’s one of Europe’s best-preserved cities, having been spared from last century’s bombs.

Alarm clock in the middle of the night insomnia or dreaming
Trouble sleeping? Try these tips for getting a good night’s rest

Many adults turn to sleep aids, including alcohol, to help them rest, without realizing that their hectic lifestyles may be contributing to their sleeplessness.

The Stumbling Fiddler Band is scheduled to perform March 3 in Everett. (Photo provided by Port Gardner Bay Music Society)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Get ready for St. Patrick’s Day with music by the Stumbling Fiddler Band in Everett.

I was charged an extra $250 for a mistaken car rental upgrade

When Leah Page picks up her rental car from Thrifty, it charges her a $250 upgrade fee. Can it do this without her permission, and how can she get a refund?

Naomi Jacobson as Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer in "Becoming Dr. Ruth" at Village Theatre in Everett. (Auston James)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

“Becoming Dr. Ruth,” which tells the sex therapist’s amazing back story, is now showing at Village Theatre in Everett.

Over 200 years, the magic lantern transformed into an educational peacock

Regarded as magic in the 1650s, this device was refined into the more scientific sounding sciopticon by the mid-1800s.

Market for sale plants. Many plants in pots
Snohomish Garden Club plans annual plant sale

The event is scheduled for April 27 at Swan’s Trail Farms. Proceeds will go to scholarships.

Start planting now so you can stop to smell your own roses all summer long

Late winter to early spring is perfect for planting roses. And with so many varieties to consider, there’s no time to waste.

The 2024 Mazda3 hatchback. (Mazda)
2024 Mazda3 adds a Carbon Turbo trim and more safety features

The charismatic compact is available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback.

Cousins Penny Leslie and Sidney Baker work together on a mural inside a jail cell at the Mukilteo Police Department on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
No more staring at blank canvas in Mukilteo police holding cells

Bright murals now adorn the walls. The artwork is intended to calm and relax detainees.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.