When drawing from the life of as inspiring a figure as public defender and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, it’s hardly a surprise that the film of his life should take some lessons from the man himself. Just Mercy is composed, controlled, and calm under pressure, all while carrying a powerful flame of anger and hurt about the iniquities of the American justice system. Destin Daniel Cretton’s film might not exactly reinvent the biopic wheel, but in centring on such a powerful true life tale and putting two weighty, movie star performances at its forefront, it overcomes cliché to be deeply moving.
Just Mercy follows Stevenson’s (Michael B Jordan) first landmark EJI case in late ‘80s Alabama where obviously innocent black man Walter Macmillan (Jamie Foxx) was put on death row on the flimsiest of evidence after the brutal murder of a white teenage girl. It’s a tragic, infuriating case and Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham effectively sketch out the deep seated racism and police ineptitude that led to such an obvious miscarriage of justice. As the story progresses it doesn’t hold much capacity to surprise, hitting a lot of the expected true story biopic beats, but this predictability hardly hinders the emotion.
Triumphs and losses hit hard, Cretton’s steady, unfussy direction allowing the story and performances to do the heavy lifting. Jordan slightly buttons down his naturally explosive charisma, commanding the screen in a quieter and more understated way, and Foxx is even better. He calculates the highs and lows of Walter’s hope and despair perfectly, devastatingly sad both in his fear and his kindness to his fellow death row inmates, played by Rob Morgan and a very entertaining O’Shea Jackson Jr. It’s Foxx’s best and least mannered performance since Django Unchained, reminding us exactly what he’s capable of.
As the EJI’s co-founder Eva Ansley, Brie Larson is underserved though; it feels a bit like she’s doing her Short Term 12 director a favour by popping up, but she does effectively add to the bright star wattage already provided by Jordan and Foxx. The local law enforcement villains are nicely hissable, but even with a wide and solid ensemble in play, Just Mercy is absolutely Jordan and Foxx’s show, and both of them make the absolute most of it. It might be a rather obvious ‘Oscar Bait’ entry, and its centrepiece courtroom scenes look like hundreds of moments you’ve seen before, but when it contains this much genuine power to move, that hardly matters.