2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: When a director gets an inherently powerful story, it doesn’t take a herculean effort to make a film that will resonate with audiences. With “Just Mercy,” director Destin Daniel Cretton accomplishes just that. Channeling the classic legal dramas, Cretton delivers a genuine crowd-pleaser by trusting in the power of the film’s story and the ability of his actors to convey its essential message.
“Just Mercy” is the story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man sentenced to death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Charged with murdering a young white woman, he is one of many incarcerated black men suffering at the hands of an unjust, racist legal system. Despite the dubious evidence used to convict him, McMillian has lost hope in the ability of his Alabama community to see beyond their prejudice. His last chance for justice will come from an outsider, a Harvard-trained lawyer (played by Michael B. Jordan) dedicated to exposing the pervasive corruption surrounding the case and freeing his client.
Through the narrative’s racial underpinnings and its notable setting, “Just Mercy” recalls “To Kill a Mockingbird” in more ways than one. Indeed, residents of the town proudly boast that they live in the hometown of Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with signs further proclaiming its significance. The references to that iconic novel and film work for and against “Just Mercy,” however. As the determined lawyer Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan may not have the same lasting impact of Gregory Peck, but his stoic conviction commands the same respect as Atticus Finch. Likewise, the affecting but formulaic storytelling fall short of the transcendent power of Harper Lee’s prose and Horton Foote’s adaptation.
By directly pointing to the legacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” however, there’s an almost comical irony to “Just Mercy,” as most of its white characters seem to have completely missed its moral lessons. To the film’s benefit, Cretton’s script embraces similarly humorous aspects within the dire circumstances. In particular, he honestly captures the way black people use laughter as relief from the pain of racism. Though his straightforward direction likely won’t earn many accolades, Cretton deserves credit for the film’s tasteful balance of that anguish and comic relief.
As it investigates the intolerance, intimidation, and inhumanity surrounding death row, audiences will surely be moved by “Just Mercy” and its involving fight for justice. The film could, therefore, find itself easily entering the Oscar conversation for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Jamie Foxx in Supporting Actor in one of several affecting portrayals of men on death row. But the more important conversation is the one it will spark about the deep flaws and racial biases of America’s justice system. In one of the film’s post-screening Q&A discussions, the real Bryan Stevenson further highlighted the work he has done in helping countless other men who have experienced and continue to experience the same miscarriages of justice. Hopefully, this film and its strong performances will be a further catalyst for urgent change.