If “Green Book” piqued your interest in racial relations in the South, just wait ’till you see “Just Mercy.”
Michael B. Jordan, heartthrob of “Black Panther” and the “Creed” movies, does an acting 180 in this hard-hitting courtroom drama and real-life story that had the audience at its Toronto Film Festival premiere sobbing — and could be an Oscar contender on several levels.
It’s always fascinating to see actors who’ve given us explosive performances package their energy into tightly controlled roles. Jordan and co-star Jamie Foxx only sparingly even raise their voices in the rage-inducing story of Walter McMillian (Foxx), a wrongly accused Alabama man on death row in the 1980s and 90s. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a young Harvard lawyer who takes on McMillian’s case and witnesses firsthand the institutional and casual racism and classism endemic in the state’s law enforcement system.
“Just Mercy” is the latest from director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term Twelve,” “The Glass Castle”), who had both his cast and real-life inspiration on hand before and after the screening. It is a profoundly moving story and, at times, an almost unbearably sad one, as when Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, “Mudbound”), a shy Vietnam veteran with PTSD sentenced to death for a bombing he regrets and doesn’t really understand, is put to death. We are with him as he hyperventilates the night before his execution, in the waiting room next to the chamber as his head and eyebrows are shaved, and as the buckles are strapped around his ankles, wrists and head. At Richardson’s request, Stevenson is there to bear witness — and so are we. It is a chilling sequence and a striking cinematic indictment of the death penalty, of which Stevenson has been a vocal opponent throughout his career. “People who have fallen down still have humanity and basic rights,” he said at a short presentation with the cast before the film. Morgan’s portrayal of Richardson — one I hope the Academy takes note of — is a masterful embodiment of that notion.
Brie Larson (“Captain Marvel”), who starred in Cretton’s “Short Term Twelve,” appears here as Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s assistant. She’s solid, though here really only to be supportive of Jordan and Foxx — as the actress herself warmly acknowledged at the Q&A afterward. O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays a cellmate of McMillian and Richardson, providing a tiny measure of comic relief as a real-life inmate, Anthony Ray Hinton. Who, the credits note, was convicted partly because a policeman said he could tell he was guilty “just by looking at him.” Tim Blake Nelson, as a coerced jailhouse informant with a deep-seated fear of the electric chair, makes his short scenes equally memorable.
But this is Jordan and Foxx’s show, and the duo has terrific acting chemistry — even when “Just Mercy” stretches on a bit longer than maybe it needs to (like every drama these days, it runs on well past the two-hour mark). Both suffer one racial slight after another — Stevenson is repeatedly and un-subtly warned away from helping the Monroeville convicts — and react by visibly stuffing their anger inward, knowing an outburst will only make the situation worse. McMillian is a native of Monroeville, and the film takes pointed note of the fact that its townspeople love to tell Stevenson it’s “home of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” where author Harper Lee grew up and set her iconic novel about lawyer Atticus Finch. Ironically, as one character notes, no one is equally eager to remember that Monroe County was also home of the slavery of thousands of human beings. That disconnect gets at the heart of “Just Mercy,” and Foxx’s devastating portrayal of the quiet McMillian, so steeped in lifelong inequality that he barely looks surprised when he’s wrongly and roughly arrested, should have audiences thinking long after the credits roll.
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