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
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