TIFF 2019 Review: Just Mercy Is a Call to Action
TIFF 2019 Review: 'Just Mercy' Is a Call to Action
"This no-frills endeavor is not necessarily meant to entertain, but act as a wake-up call," writes film critic Valerie Complex in her review of Just Mercy.
Just Mercy, the new film by director Daniel Destin Cretton and adapted from the book of the same name by Bryan Stevenson, just had its North American premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is a tiny glimpse into the broader issue of capital punishment and a vital viewing experience for this generation, exposing the cracks in the American justice system, the injustices faced by marginalized communities, and the barbaric nature of the death penalty.
However, considering the director’s vision, it’s fair to ask why Cretton didn’t push the bar. This subject matter commands grit, but the end product is acutely tame. That’s not a bad thing, especially when everything is executed earnestly, but it doesn’t offer any new information, and some of the powerhouse cast feel wasted. Nonetheless, there is tremendous value in telling these stories because it’s importance lies in its ability to exist.
Just Mercy opens in Alabama with Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) a blue-collar guy minding his own business. When driving home from work, he is confronted by a blockade of police cars who stop him. Living in the south, he knows what the police are capable of (especially with the southern history of police violence against Black people), so he complies to the letter. But that does him no good as he is taken to jail after being accused of committing a cold-blooded murder of a young white girl in an armed robbery.
With no evidence except testimony from convicted criminal Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), McMillian is sentenced to death. Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) moves to Alabama to open the Equal Justice Initiative, which investigates cases of capital punishment. Hiring Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) as his first employee, the two work together to administer justice where they can. While visiting the local prison, Stevenson meets McMillian and decides to take on his case in hopes of gaining a re-trial to prove McMillian’s innocence.
Something unique the film explores is the threat of death as it looms over every character, especially those in prison as the electric chair is used as a scare tactic to coerce confessions from criminals or to enforce unjust principles. Unfortunately, the one element that may have set the film apart from other procedural dramas is delivered as plainly and sanitized as possible by Cretton. It also doesn’t help that every plot point is predictable, and in parts, painfully slow. But its story, and the incredible supporting cast, are the backbones of Just Mercy.
Michael B. Jordan is serviceable as Bryan Stevenson. It’s a stark change from his previous roles which is an improved change, but what’s missing is that resoluteness that would take his performance from average to incredible. Brie Larson is doing what she can, but she’s given little to do, and that may be by design as the narrative wanted to avoid falling into the white savior trope and does so successfully. The real stars are Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson (a death row inmate and friends with Walter) and Jamie Foxx, who carry the film's most fierce and heartbreaking moments. It’s no surprise that both performances are gaining Oscar buzz before award season kicks in.
In a system where Black and Brown folks disproportionately inhabit American prisons because of rampant racism and prejudice within judicial practices, these marginalized communities are on the receiving end of most death penalty sentences. It’s not a question of whether or not someone deserves to die, but how many innocent prisoners were killed without a proper day in court. The system lacks provisions for rehabilitation, and so prisoners on death row just count down the days until death. It is now clear that innocent defendants will be convicted and sentenced to death with some regularity as long as the death penalty continues.
This is why, in spite of its weaknesses, films like Just Mercy deserve to prevail. Stevenson made history with the Equal Justice Initiative, the number of death row cases his organization managed, and how many people felt seen by his work. This no-frills endeavor is not necessarily meant to entertain, but act as a wake-up call, and then a call to action. If Bryan Stevenson carved his own path and demanded better of the American justice system, we should all take advantage of that and do the same.
Just Mercy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It opens in theaters on Christmas Day. Watch the official trailer in the video below.