Social activist and lawyer, Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, “Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption” is adapted for the big screen with Warner Bros. Pictures, Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton. The movie opens with the wrongful and heartbreaking arrest of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) for the murder of a young white woman. With the riveting Jamie Foxx, delivering another Oscar worthy performance, Just Mercy tells the story of recent Harvard Law graduate, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan).
Moving to Alabama, Stevenson decides to open up a non-profit law firm and hires paralegal Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Immediately, Bryan is met with jeers and skepticism from the good ole boy network. Never the less, Bryan is determined to make a difference and begins to meet with death row inmates, including Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and most importantly Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
Walter has given up all hope of ever seeing the light of day again and initially refuses to meet with Bryan. However once Bryan wins over Walter’s family with his honest work ethic and dauntlessness for the case, Walter agrees to work with Bryan for his freedom.
Serving as director, Destin Daniel Cretton’s third film Just Mercy is an eye-opening inspirational film. Andrew Lanham, who wrote the script with director Cretton builds a natural narrative that takes on Bryan Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) quest for the greater good. Jordan’s last few films were all safe commercial franchise films that tapped into his natural charisma. In Just Mercy though, Jordan is given a chance to show his true acting chops. The script for Just Mercy never paints Bryan’s as a hot shot know it all, but instead as a man who just wants to see the right thing done.
I must also point out the award worthy work of both Jamie Foxx and Rob Morgan as death row inmates, who Bryan is defending. While Foxx has the meatier role as Walter McMillian and shares more screen time with Michael B. Jordan’s, Bryan Stevenson character, Rob Morgan’s character of Herbert Richardson is the portrayal that stuck with me the most. Portraying a Vietnam veteran who, during a PTSD bout, murdered a girl, Morgan turns what reads a minor role in the script into a riveting for the age’s performance. There’s a moment in the film where Herbert is having a conversation with Bryan about how he’s accepted his fate which brought tears to my eyes.
Similar to Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx takes a break from mainstream fare to deliver another Award-winning performance. Foxx totally disappears into the role of Walter McMillian, showing us a man who doesn’t have much else to live for and has accepted his fate on death row. There’s never a moment in the film where Foxx overacts. Instead, he humanizes Walter and allows the audience to feel his pain.
Destin Daniel Cretton gives his go to actress, Brie Larson, a small extended cameo role as Bryan’s secretary Eva Ansley, which she glides through with ease. Tim Blake Nelson also does his best character acting as Ralph Myers, a convict who may hold the key to Walter’s freedom.
In spite of the quality performances, the aforementioned actors in Just Mercy give, I was upset that O’Shea Jackson Jr, as Anthony Ray Hinton, is never fully developed. Hinton, who has a heartbreaking story similar to Walter McMillian’s, deserves better than what Just Mercy gives him. In his brief screen time as Hinton, O’Shea Jackson Jr provides the audience with some poised moments. I would’ve preferred that the directors create a composite character and use a lesser known actor for the role. Hopefully the success of Just Mercy will allow Anthony Ray Hinton’s story to be told on the big screen.
The story for Just Mercy isn’t a new one and there are moments where you know exactly what’s going to happen and where the story is going to go. However, as Bryan Stevenson himself once said “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, you have to get close”. Just Mercy achieves this with its award worthy performances.
Final Grade A +