When Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) first comes to Monroe County Alabama, locals â€” the white ones, at least â€” keep telling him he needs to visit the museum dedicated to hometown hero Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, as if thatâ€™s all he needs to know about race and justice in the American South.
It becomes a little bit of a punchline; one of not many in Just Mercy, a fact-based death row drama that works like a blunt but effective instrument, thanks largely to its irrefutable message and the central performance of Jamie Foxx as Johnnie D., a man sentenced to die for a crime thereâ€™s almost no chance he could have committed.
Itâ€™s 1987, and Stevenson, a Delaware native straight out of Harvard Law School, believes he can help inmates like Johnnie, Herbert (Stranger Thingsâ€˜ Rob Morgan in a devastating performance), and Anthony (Oâ€™Shea Jackson Jr.) â€” men whose fates often hinged on not much more than an incompetent attorney or a police chief looking for a quick end to an ugly case.
Monroe County, unsurprisingly, doesnâ€™t welcome a young black lawyer, particularly one looking to free the man theyâ€™ve already judged and juried as the killer of a white teenager named Ronda Morrisson. (Itâ€™s clear to nearly everyone else from the outset that he didnâ€™t do it, though the movie doesnâ€™t get around to addressing who did.)
The only real ally Stevenson finds is a local wife and mother named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, incognito in high-waisted jeans and a mud-colored home perm); together, they methodically rework cases whose incriminating evidence was patchy at best to begin with, and often staggeringly ill-won.
Itâ€™s solidly rewarding to watch the wheels of Mercy turn, though the direction (by Destin Daniel Cretton, who helmed 2013â€™s greatÂ Short Term 12) canâ€™t seem to help falling into certain schematics that tend to follow movies like these: the original sin; the uplift; the leering good-old-boy sheriffs; the big-moment court scenes.
What floats the film is the commitment of its excellent cast, and the intrinsic truth at its core: that justice shouldnâ€™t be divided by black and white even if the message that delivers it sometimes is. B
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