Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton. Cast: Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, Brie Larson. 12A cert, 137 mins.
Walter “Johnny D” McMillian was at a local fish fry when Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old dry-cleaning clerk, was murdered in his Alabama hometown. Dozens of witnesses could back him up. But he was a black man in the south who’d had an affair with a white woman, so law enforcement found a way to pin the crime on him. On 17 August 1988, a jury declared him guilty. He was suddenly faced with the death penalty.
Just Mercy, a fictionalised account of McMillian’s experience, never lets us forget that his injustice is not unique. This is refined, sober filmmaking from Destin Daniel Cretton, who made his name with the similarly unfussy (but emotionally bruising) Short Term 12. McMillian (Jamie Foxx) might be the heart of this story, but there are still moments where the film pauses and observes the entire landscape of systemic racism and corruption. A montage sees McMillian’s fellow death row inmates describe the multifarious ways they were let down or deliberately betrayed by their own lawyers. A Vietnam veteran (Rob Morgan) has his PTSD left untreated and unacknowledged.
The film draws from the memoirs of Bryan Stevenson (played here by Michael B Jordan), who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and took on McMillian as one of his first cases. While some of the details have been trimmed, it’s clear that Cretton and Andrew Lanham aren’t interested in employing dramatic licence for the purposes of flashy melodrama. No one runs into the courtroom with a last-minute revelation. This is gruelling work, in a field where both victory and defeat are announced in the same flat tone. Bigotry is practised openly and casually – as one of McMillian’s neighbours points out, the death penalty is “just another way to lynch a black man”.
It’s all too easy to lose hope. McMillian’s time on death row has hollowed him out – he’ll crack jokes with the other inmates or pass the time listening to the radio, but it feels slight and inauthentic. In that regard, Foxx’s performance is transformative; there’s no hint of the charismatic movie star here, only the stillness of a man who’s already resigned himself to a kind of living death.
Cretton pays careful attention to the power of gaze: McMillian, at first, can barely lift his eyes from off the floor, while Stevenson’s is direct and unwavering. Jordan is able to portray a kind of everyday heroism. He’s strong, but not unbreakable – his operations director Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) is always on standby as both ally and friend.
Just Mercy ends up taking many of its cues from Stevenson. It’s steady and clear-headed, safe in the knowledge that truth is the ultimate humaniser.