Well Placed Emotion: Our Review of ‘Just Mercy’

Posted in Festival Coverage, Movies, Theatrical, TIFF 2019 by - December 28, 2019
Well Placed Emotion: Our Review of ‘Just Mercy’

The fight for human dignity is much harder than it should be…

Just Mercy is a riveting true story on how easy and often people have their basic civil rights be infringed upon and even though it has moments where it’s trying just a little too hard to be award worthy, it’s simply a riveting piece of cinema.

It’s the story of young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). One of his first, and most incendiary, cases is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political manoeuvrings and overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter and others like him.

There’s an unabashed sadness in Just Mercy as a story that feels far too common place unfolds in front of our eyes and is pulled off with genuine heart and emotion towards the subject matter which is the real power of the film, however is also has a couple of moments of unabashed shamelessness as it hopes to manipulate as many Awards nominations out of the season as it possibly can.

Adapted for the screen from the book by Bryan Stevenson himself, director Destin Daniel Cretton who audiences may know from previous efforts like The Glass Castle or Short Term 12 is a solid story teller without a doubt.  While there’s an obvious conscience weight that Cretton has to take on (along with co-screenwriter Andrew Latham) in retelling this story it all feels like it is bore out in as measured a way as humanly possible, even in spite of some very “For Your Consideration” type moments that actors like Foxx and Jordan had during the film which you can feel being spoon-fed to you while watching it.

There is an unshakeable sense of “been there, done that” while watching this all unfold but where Cretton really shines is in getting some genuinely thoughtful and emotional performances from his two leads to rise out of what is basically a very “paint by numbers” bio pic.

As Michael B Jordan has shown some very obvious chops in being able to carry larger scale stories but here he really manages to internalize the doubt and inner conflict that he is wrestling with in a judicial system that more than anything is corrupt against the poor and anyone of color.  The material doesn’t give him a ton of help as a lot of the film plays more about the paperwork and the technical inequities of the legal system but Jordan really gets to the core of the character who is a man who just wants to do right by as many people as he can.

Jamie Foxx is just stellar as Walter McMillan who has simply given up hope which is restored to him by Stevenson and there are some excellent supporting turns from the likes of Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan and Rafe Spall throughout the film.  Even Brie Larson in a smaller yet pivotal role as Evan Ansley; a local advocate who’s standing up in the face of some overt racism and flawed politics gets some quite and powerful moments while taking a necessary back seat to the key figures of the story.

Ultimately, Just Mercy is an important movie because it reminds us of the need to keep pushing for genuine equality among all people.  It manages to straddle an air of necessary sadness while simultaneously emboldening good people to keep up the fight for equality and civil rights across the board.  A little more subtlety and nuance in the overall narrative could have made Just Mercy something even more special, but you can’t help let that kind of thing slide when it’s message is so on point and so vital in today’s world.

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David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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