TIFF19 REVIEW: Just Mercy [2019]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 136 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2019 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Destin Daniel Cretton
Writer(s): Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham /
Bryan Stevenson (book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption)

“Trees swaying in the breeze”

The story of Walter McMillian’s incarceration and subsequent time on death row is a powerful one with themes spanning police corruption, Southern racism, and justice itself as a means of finding truth rather than convenience. This is an innocent man with a concrete alibi sentenced to death because of coerced testimony and everyone intimately involved with the case knows. Since the victim was a white teenager and McMillian (Johnny D.) a black man caught having an affair with a white woman in the past, none of that ultimately mattered. Why set an example with the execution of a real killer when you could satisfy the bloodlust of an affluent community paying your salary by murdering anyone instead? Harvard Law graduate Bryan Stevenson went to Alabama with the answer.

Based on Stevenson’s book and adapted by director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham, Just Mercy gives this crusade a face as well as a voice. It follows Bryan as he experiences his first contact with a death row inmate (a man his age) while interning with a firm helping the underprivileged receive their day in court. This motivated him further than his own personal reasons for both choosing to become an attorney and leaving his Delaware home for the hostile environment Dixie provided. Only upon arrival was he subjected to unspeakable racial abuse and then positioned to bear witness to the futility of those men he sought to inspire with hope. That’s when everything coalesced to realize saving these men wasn’t solely about winning their freedom.

We understand this because McMillian (Jamie Foxx) isn’t Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) only client. There’s also Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan)—a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who admits his crime (along with the helplessness and confusion felt when committing it). Bryan therefore learns the lengths the police will go to fabricate convictions via Johnny D. while Herb’s case proves the lack of compassion this town’s white population has for the plight of haunted Black men. His partner in this endeavor for justice (Brie Larson‘s Eva Ansley) wants to believe new district attorney Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) can become an ally considering his distance from the past’s collusion and apathy. She wants to give him the benefit of the doubt no one gave Bryan’s growing list of vulnerable defendants.

This is obviously a mistake once Champan and the smug Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) become attached at the hip. So it’s up to Stevenson and Ansley to re-investigate McMillian’s crime and discover how to exonerate him. They step on dangerous toes, become targets of death threats, and eventually appeal to the soul of the person directly responsible for putting their client on death’s door (a very good Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers). All we’re certain about is the fact that Johnny D. should be free. Knowing that, however, doesn’t make it so. And unless you’re familiar with the case, there’s always a sliver of doubt as far as his fate is concerned. It’s this complexity that keeps our intrigue because our damaged systems will often win.

While this captivating saga is told competently, however, something got in the way of its transcendence to greatness. After showing his heart with Short Term 12, Cretton appears to have slowly been compromised by the mainstream Hollywood machine’s desire for simplicity, emotional manipulation, and complete removal of nuance. The really strong moments of hardship and tragedy do land and Jordan, Foxx, and Morgan are up for what’s necessary to take the spotlight and expose their characters’ pain, but too often these affecting displays arrive with paint-by-number clarity. Add the ham-fisted moral evolution of a guard (Hayes Mercure) to epitomize white guilt without actually doing anything principled to make a real difference and you almost have to ask why the filmmakers didn’t think these Black men’s desperation was enough.

That’s not to say their moments aren’t also equally sentimentalized and played for heartstring tugs. Since it’s their story, though, you can forgive those sweeping displays of emotion because they’re what matters. It’s not Mercure’s character or calling out Champan to acknowledge his power to change things. It’s about McMillian being one of an incomprehensible number of innocent people on death row and how that fact galvanized two halves of a community two very different ways. Will Stevenson get scared off or dig in? Will the voiceless activate and join his war despite the inherent risks? This isn’t a straight shot case of truth versus lie, but a dog fight in court and out with the latter proving the heavy favorite. More than one life is at stake.

I only wish Just Mercy stayed in this lane to focus solely on this case and how it reverberated throughout the town. While Herb’s inclusion is a crucial lead-up to ensure we know what might happen with Johnny D. too, the other aspects do little but distract. Mercure’s guard is the worst culprit because of the interaction he has with Stevenson at the start of the film (the impact of which is undercut by his eventual awakening), but O’Shea Jackson Jr.‘s Anthony Ray Hinton isn’t much better. Here you have a recognizable actor in a role that only serves to repeat what McMillian already said in the same scenes. The reason he’s here at all is to add more emphasis to Stevenson’s (legitimately laudable) heroics via epilogue text.

This is why I wonder if the filmmakers didn’t think the McMillian trial was enough. Maybe they tried that solitary avenue and felt it was anti-climactic because you can more or less guess the outcome if not the entire journey by its familiar beats. So make a Stevenson biography if that’s the case. Focus on him and give McMillian equal weight to the other men he’s saved. The moment you make Johnny D. more important than the rest is the moment the others become poignant pawns on a quest to check off an Oscar contender template’s boxes. That’s a disservice to the work Jordan, Foxx, and Morgan (amongst others) put in because we’re now second-guessing whether their performances were merely a byproduct of subsidization via Cretton’s heavy-handed filmmaking.


photography:
courtesy of TIFF

Comments
One Response to “TIFF19 REVIEW: Just Mercy [2019]”
  1. Jeffery says:

    I think you were on to something until you equated a minimal story with profundity. That kind of raw, and stripped storytelling is admirable in some genre fare, but the overbearing truth that this story wants to investigate is the excessiveness and error of the death penalty at large. And that would always require more than one (overwhelmingly) wrongful conviction story to convey.

    The criminal justice issues at the heart of this film are, definitively, on the opposite side of a minimal explanation. If epilogues and bridges built to EJI’s work were the only byproduct, in my eyes the film did its job. It’s possible that this is it’s own kind of transcendence.

    We should either keep it from being one of this year’s critical darlings, or use it as a bonafide gateway to learn more about injustice. But, trust, we can’t do both.

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