Review: Just Mercy (2019)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, including some racial epithets
Release Dates: 12/25/19 (Streaming); 1/10/20 (Wide Theatrical)
Where to Watch: HBO
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
Runtime: 2 hours, 16 minutes

Just Mercy should be required viewing, no matter how you view incarcerations and death row. And, if you watch this film without feeling any empathy towards the wrongly-convicted individuals featured, then there’s no hope for you.  (Also, #BlackLivesMatter). The Destin Daniel Cretton-directed film is based on Bryan Stevenson’s non-fiction of the same name, covering his early years as a death row attorney and concentrating on one case in particular: that of a kind-hearted black man (Jamie Foxx) who is as innocent as can be, yet somehow managed to end up on death row. (By “somehow” I mean via racism and classism).  

Michael B. Jordan portrays Stevenson as a young lawyer who is very passionate about the cause; his performance isn’t particularly showy, but it doesn’t have to be. He joins forces with a similarly determined, local Alabama mother played by Oscar winner Brie Larson. Her motivation in unclear, which makes her involvement in the story confusing. Yet, she still plays an important role in helping obtain justice for Foxx’s character and for others. 

As the wrongly convicted death row inmate at the film’s center, Foxx is truly great, giving one of his best performances in years (maybe even since his Oscar-winning role in Ray). He’s not perfect, but he’s not a murderer, and in one profoundly moving monologue, he explains to Jordan’s Stevenson his conflicted feelings. Other inmates include Rob Morgan in a very powerful, important role that is integral to the plot, as well as the always-reliable Tim Black Nelson. Rafe Spall shows up as a predictable, seemingly unlikable character, along with some other supporting plays that you may or may not recognize.

At over 2 hours long, Just Mercy overstays its welcome a bit. I realize that it’s a very important, complex issue that probably warrants a longer running time than other films, but I would have prefer it to be about 20-25 minutes shorter. Also, the themes can certainly be heavy-handed at times. Stevenson is certainly a hero to these wrongly-evicted individuals, which is why he maybe should not have been depicted with far too much humility and near-nonchalantness about his heroism. There’s a balance between being egotistical and too humble. 

With the plethora of innocent people — typically, people of color — on death row and incarcerated overall, a film like this is super relevant. Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative does a lot of work to free innocents, but there’s still a lot more to be done. Hopefully, Just Mercy will shed some necessary light on this important subject.