Courtesy of Warner Bros.
If you’re looking for the early favorite for the audience award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, (a prize “Green Book” took with it all the way to Oscar glory) look no further than the riveting legal drama “Just Mercy” based on the book of the same name by Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson.
Stevenson has long been an outspoken critic of the death penalty, and has mainly used his Harvard law degree to represent wrongfully convicted, predominant colored, prisoners and children whom have been sentenced to die. Stevenson, believes every life has intrinsic value, has numerous cases under his belt, but the crux of “Just Mercy” highlights an early, much talked about case where one William D McMillan (Jamie Foxx - his best performance in years) was convicted of killing a white woman in 1987 Monroe County, Alabama with little to no hard evidence.
Stevenson is portrayed by Michael B Jordan, and he too could be in the Oscar conversation for tackling the real life activist. Recently graduated with hardly any money to his name, Stevenson starts taking on death row cases that more or less were forgotten, or the court-appointed attorneys brushed it under the rug. Which leads him to McMillan, and from the first meeting, and some minor digging, it doesn’t take long for Stevenson to realize that McMillan case doesn’t seem right. Testimonies are contradicting themselves, alibis are solid, and there’s a bigoted sheriff who was just itching to pin the crime on someone of color. It’s a timely and relevant issue that demands our awareness, and there’s one chilling scene where Stevenson gets pulled over by the cops and is tossed around for no other reason than he’s a black man driving through the deep south.
Filling out the cast is Brie Larson’s Eva Ansley, an assistant who helped founded the EJI; Rafe Spall as Alabama’s District Attorney who's trying to preserve his own public image; O’Shea Jackson Jr as Anthony Ray Hinton - a black man who was convicted - and eventually absolved - of murdering two people; Rob Morgan absolutely shines as Herbert Richardson, a PTSD stricken war vet on death row for killing a woman with a bomb he planted; and finally there’s Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers, whose questionable testimony is the sole reason McMillan is charged with the murder.
It’s a crowd pleasing and emotional film with director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) angling his drama in compelling, albeit, conventional ways with Jordan communicating so much with his facial expressions, glances, and grunts, while also playing a man set to deliver on purpose and promise. Foxx, on the other hand, is less so inclined to speak because he’s been so emotionally beaten down to where he thinks a lawyer re-opening his case is just a waste of time. They both keep things moving, and even though the script could expand more on the career and deeds Stevenson did like in his excellent novel, the strong cast and the whole “Based On a True Story” aspect sell the material nonetheless.
Warner Bros has set a limited release for Just Mercy on December 25th 2019, before expanding nationwide on January 10th 2020. This film was screened as a world premirere at the Toronto International Film Festival.