For much of the world democracies the death penalty is illegal, it is a brutal way of carrying out “justice” especially in countries were the Corrections facilities are made to “correct” instead of “condemn.” In the majority of states in the United States, however, the death penalty is still legal and a troublesome concept. Michael B. Jordan has brought his star power and production company to shed the light on the dangers and brutality of this form of penal punishment, by taking on the story of an innocent man on death row.
Just Mercy (2019) is the story of lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) a Harvard graduate who in the late 1980s set up a non-profit practice in Alabama, with the objective of giving legal counsel to those on death row. Stevenson takes on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) amongst others and is appalled at the general lack of evidence and thin ground with which the judge sentenced him to death.
The film is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton who’s always brought a rather paused and delicate look at certain subjects, be it Social Services with orphaned kids in Short Term 12 (2013) or the wild and unconventional parenting in The Glass Castle (2017). In Just Mercy, Daniel Cretton is able to apply his slow rhythm to let viewers have each scene and moment sink in. There are subtle details littered throughout that help bring a sense of depth to what is otherwise a rather blunt and almost preachy script.
The script, which was co-written by Daniel Cretton, seems to bear the brunt of the film’s drawbacks. There seem to be too many areas of social justice that the narrative wants to touch upon, from racism, to the death penalty, to police brutality, and broken justice systems. All these subjects overlap and could have been stitched together in a film, but the storyline in Just Mercy seems to be flipflopping around and not finding a common thread to smooth these issues over.
The result is a rather disorienting story, that while poignantly important, begins to bore viewers when paired with the snail-pace that Daniel Cretton brings. A simpler focus on either one issue, or a better script with all of them would have helped bring some clarity and a greater sense of introspection. What’s most frustrating is that while the film seems to wander aimlessly from unrelated cases, it only really focuses on its central storyline in the final 20-minutes, and by then it actually rushes through what would otherwise have been great dramatic courtroom moments.
The film is aided by a stellar cast, which use their charm and their incredible gravitas to bring intrigue to every scene. Foxx is especially stellar in a role that forces him to dig deeper than any film has made him since perhaps his Oscar-winning performance in Ray (2004). Jordan is also winning in the lead role and smart to not try and overshadow the greater issue that he is telling with some over-the-top performance.
In the end, Just Mercy is an important reminder of the horrors and dangers of the death penalty, but the film itself seems to struggle to hold itself together with a messy script and a wrongly-paced director. Some powerful performances are able to help digest the rather slower parts, and in the end the film’s subject makes its case for being necessary and urgent.