WSBA at the Movies: Just Mercy

Movie theater marquee: "WSBA at the Movies"

3+ Gavels for ‘Just Mercy’

(PG-13, 137 minutes), starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson

Based on the memoir by civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Injustice and Redemption,” the film adaptation stars Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station,” “Friday Night Lights”) as Stevenson, a recent Harvard Law School graduate who defends death row inmates like Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx (“Ray,” “Django Unchained”). Currently available for purchase on streaming services and scheduled to release on Blu-ray and DVD April 14.

Reviewed by WSBA Member Services and Engagement Manager Paris Eriksen and Member Services and Engagement Specialist Julianne Unite

*This review contains minor spoilers

PARIS: The film puts heart-wrenching injustice on full display, in particular the implicit and explicit bias systemized within the legal system. But the deepest moments of sadness come when there is still an unwillingness to correct this bias, even when it’s presented in full view. “Just Mercy” presents these injustices in such a way that the system is beyond repair—bias wins, it seems. Through the excellent performances by both Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, the audience feels each gut punch of despair, hopelessness, ferocity, and helplessness. They provide a raw portrayal that is palpable. Foxx, in particular, is excellent and I’m not usually a huge fan of his. He demands attention in every frame, which I find is too much in some of his films, but here it’s just right.

JULIANNE: In an age of superhero movies jam packed with death-defying stunts, special effects, and other technologically advanced tools of the cinematic trade, “Just Mercy” is an inspiring film that demonstrates real-life superheroes exist and can be just as extraordinary, if not more than your average comic-book superhero. Despite a lack of computer-generated visual effects and fast-paced sequencing, this film got my heart racing through powerful performances and suspenseful scenarios where a justice system that should protect all, regardless of color, targets and persecutes innocent black men and those who stand by them.

PARIS: I couldn’t help but feel that certain scenes and performances—more so with Jordan—were overacted. The point of some scenes could be too … pointed. Like a flashing, neon arrow telling the audience, “See? Right here—here! This is bad. This is injustice. Do you see it?” Yes. We do; no flashing lights needed. This articulation is highlighted further by Jordan’s overacting. I find his performance good overall, but mechanical at times. He hits his mark and it’s clear; every movement is too intentional and a bit forced. A performance I really enjoyed was that of lesser-known Tim Blake Nelson (“Oh, Brother Where Art Thou,” HBO’s “Watchmen”) as Ralph Myers, who provides a portrayal of humanity where there seemingly is none. His character (a white man and the only witness to the purported crime, who is serving time in jail) makes you evaluate your own biases about other victims in a biased system, which provides an interesting juxtaposition.

JULIANNE: While I agree that there may have been some overacting, “Just Mercy” has a lot of sincerity and subtlety that balances some of the “extra” drama. Specifically, in one scene that involved an execution by electric chair (very reminiscent of “The Green Mile”). I appreciated the director’s decision to not show the electrocution of a human being; rather, the focus was on the other faces in the room as they watched on. For me, it felt like seeing my own reflection on screen. Another subtle, yet powerful depiction is the portrayal of the movie’s villain, which I found particularly compelling. The villain of “Just Mercy” is not a single person, but rather the various interactions among systemic and institutional racism and individual biases; for example, the character of Myers, whose false testimony led to the wrongful conviction of McMillian. While Myers may not have intentionally lied because he was a racist, his actions furthered racism by allowing the unjust system to win. Hypocrisy is another way the villain reveals itself in this film. The (true) story takes place in an Alabama town that is the real-world birthplace of Harper Lee and the setting of her famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Interestingly, many of the town’s residents claim they are proud to live in the home of Lee and even encourage outsiders to go and visit the “To Kill a Mockingbird” museum; yet those same people carry on the injustices Lee documented in her novel by wrongly convicting McMillian and sentencing him to death. This illuminates a reality that racism is a villain that is not necessarily all or nothing. Yet, despite these odds and the many representations of racism, superheroes still emerged and sometimes won in this meaningful film.

Final Verdict

Paris: 3 gavels (3 gavels)Julianne: 3.5 gavels (3.5 gavels)