If you are being incredibly reductive, and I am, Just Mercy is a message movie. The movie is simply steeped in earnest moralizing. It could have become unbearable. Fortunately, it manages to hold back just enough, and is well performed enough, that it gets its message across in a mostly entertaining way.
Michael B. Jordan plays Brian Stevenson, a newly graduated from Harvard lawyer who moves to Alabama to set up the Equal Justice Initiative to help people on death row. Among the cases he takes on is that of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan, played by Jamie Foxx, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on patently and obviously false eye witness testimony. Just Mercy follows Stevenson as he digs into McMillan’s case and as he deals with threats and obstacles from the racist system that put McMillan on Death Row and the racists who are working to keep him there.
The movie is heavy without being completely heavy handed. It shows starkly what black people face in this country and the south especially. Stevenson starts out somewhat insulated thanks to his upbringing in New England. He is soon disabused of any notions of fairness in the system. It starts with a forced strip search when he visits his clients in the prison and escalates to the local police holding him at gunpoint during a traffic stop that is a pretext to rummage through his files.
One thing Just Mercy does especially well is keeping focus on the prisoners. Three are major characters in the movie: McMillan, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). The first two claim to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of (and were both eventually exonerated). Richardson is guilty, but the movie emphasizes his humanity. He did a terrible thing, but the movie interrogates whether that makes it okay to end his life. Richardson was a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD. He was clearly traumatized, but instead of getting help, he was abandoned by the system.
The movie also does a great job of highlighting the tedium of legal work. Stevenson spends a lot of his time pouring through files, doing research and crafting motions to try to get justice for his clients. These efforts come to naught for the bulk of the movie. His motions are denied, even when the evidence he presents is overwhelming. It is long, crushing, often fruitless work. The movie does not make it exciting, but it does make it look heroic.
The movie cannot help but be incredibly earnest because this is an incredibly important topic. People’s lives are on the line here. It succeeds largely on almost uniformly strong performances. Jamie Foxx is the standout, he is amazing in this movie. Brie Larson does what she can with a role that is important and kind of nothing. Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall are solid as well. The movie manages to give hope in what is a hopeless situation, with the idea that with enough work things can get better. I’ll retract this statement if someone tells me the character is based on a real person, but I could have done without the increasingly sympathetic prison guard. That felt like a ill-fitting note in the context of the rest of the movie.
I’ll end with a little moralizing of my own. The Capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment. It is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society. Even if it were ever justified, which it is not, the systems the United States has in place to enact it are too flawed to be acceptable. The movie notes this in its closing moments and is exactly right. The problem with a message movie like this is that it either is accepted by everyone, making it pointless, or those who reject it simply don’t watch or ignore it. Hopefully some people see this movie and learn something about our incredibly flawed justice system and that changes still need to be made to fix it.