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February 3, 2020

Just Mercy (2019) --- “This Is About All Of Us.”


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Hello, Movie Buffs!
     Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle), co-written alongside Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle, The Shack), and based on the memoir of the same name by Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy (2019) is an American legal drama about Byran Stevenson and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard Law, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) heads to Alabama to protect the legal rights of wrongly-accused death row inmates with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). One of his first, and most difficult, cases is that of Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx,) who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die for the notorious 1987 murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite an abundance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him was a forced lie. In the years that followed, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, even with the odds and the system stacked against them.
     Director & co-writer Cretton structures Just Mercy as a procedural legal drama, observing the case from the early 1980s all the way to the eventual retrial in 1992. Alabama, who is still practicing the death penalty, is shown as a state that doesn’t even bother to hide its racial prejudices, demonstrating that the entire justice system is rigged to funnel people like McMillian, that they don’t like, into jail to kill them within the means of the law. In short, its ‘legal’ murder. Being imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit is something that most of us can’t even fathom and when you add the death penalty it becomes a horrifying tragedy. But this is something that happens more times than we might think possible. This is why Stevenson and Ansley founded the non-profit organization Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), whose mission is to get innocent and/or wrongly convicted people off of death row.
     Now Just Mercy is not your typical courtroom drama, nor is it a straightforward biopic. While is does repeat much of the same formula that can be found in similar films, this film sets itself apart by putting the truth on trial and showcasing how broken the US criminal justice system is. The film is a layered combination of Stevenson’s personal experiences and his efforts to highlight racial and demographic inequality within the Death Row system. It’s not a brutal and unflinching intense drama by any means but it does force the audience to mentally prepare for some horrific details makes a powerful and poignant psychological argument about the absence of justice and humanity.
     However, despite all of its good points the film also has the habit of overstating its more obvious elements. There are a number of references to the fact that the town is where  Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and drives the point home when Stevenson’s is recommended to go check out the Harper Lee museum. In addition, Larson’s Ansley character primarily amounts to an embodiment of white guilt who's only there to act appalled at some horrible everyday occurrences but is not given much to go beyond the repetition of “I’m sorry.” Nevertheless, Just Mercy is an emotionally gripping story that connects strongly with the heart of the viewer until the very end. 
     The performances help carry the story and provide the focal point with which the audience can connect to. Michael B. Jordan (Raising Dion) is not my favorite actor, in fact, I could go so far as to say that I’ve never actually cared for his acting for a number of reasons. However, here he delivers a captivating and impassioned performance, filled with emotional power, as Bryan Stevenson. Jamie Foxx (Robin Hood, Ray) as Walter McMillian conveys the feelings of resignation to a man who’s lost all hope within a racist justice system. And while he shines in a number of scenes, his resignation implies cowed victimhood that settles uncomfortably over the entire film. Brie Larson (Avengers Endgame, Captain Marvel 2) is good as Stevenson’s friend and assistant Eva Ansley but she is given little to do in the film except being a source of white moral outrage. Rob Morgan (Stranger Things) delivers a touching performance as Herbert Richardson, a war vet whose crime was a result of PTSD and should be convicted to a mental hospital, not death row. Tim Blake Nelson (Angel Has Fallen, Watchmen) makes an impact as Ralph Myers, a convicted murderer with a twitchy delivery. Others like Rafe Spall (The Big Short, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) as Tommy Champan, O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Den of Thieves, Straight Outta Compton) as Anthony Ray Hinton, and Lindsay Ayliffe (Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings) as Judge Foster also gave some good minor performances. 
     Overall, Just Mercy (2019) is an emotionally gripping story that connects strongly with the heart of the viewer until the very end. While it may rely on formulaic structures and predictability to illustrate its point, it rises to the challenge of not being your typical courtroom drama nor a straightforward biopic. It is a powerful drama that delivers an affecting story filled with riveting legal drama and an impassioned and scathing attack on the horrors of a corrupt institution that still exists today. This is about standing up for not just people of a particular demographic but all people who have the misfortune of not being given a fair trial or fair justice. In addition, the performances help to elevate the story and provide a focal point with which the audience can connect with. I highly recommend that you check it out when you can.

Final Vote --- 7.9 of 10 stars

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