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Just Mercy - Movie Review

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Just Mercy

At one point in Just Mercy, the new film from director, co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle), the film’s main character Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) points out that “the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, it’s justice.” Those words set the tone for the tangle of legal and political maneuverings Stevenson will encounter in this story with a narrative that that has been going on for a long time in this country: racism is still relevant. And – despite having been told over and over – this is a story that, sadly, still needs to be told.

"despite having been told over and over – this is a story that, sadly, still needs to be told"

The film is based on the powerful true story (and book) about wet-behind-the-ears lawyer Stevenson and his history-making battle to bring justice to those who can’t afford it. Believe it or not, there’s still a significant segment of society for whom justice is only a fairy tale. A privilege only to be enjoyed by the wealthy and entitled. But armed with his newly-acquired Harvard law degree and his newly-founded Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Stevenson sets out for Alabama to make a difference in the lives of those who need a little hope.

Whereas Stevenson’s book examined many of the cases taken on by the EJI, Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham focus mainly on the case of Walter McMillian aka Johnny D (Jamie Foxx), who was arrested, convicted, and placed on death row based upon falsified testimony from a white witness, despite numerous black witnesses who know that Johnny D was with them at the time of the murders.

It is important to point out that Stevenson and his EJI are in the deep south, specifically Monroe County, Alabama, where he is constantly reminded to check out the To Kill a Mockingbird museum which becomes not only a running joke, but also a reminder of the hypocrisy held by a place that boasts of a “civil rights museum” yet ignores the history of its once-thriving slave market.

Stevenson acquires the help of like-minded assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, Captain Marvel) to take on the stubborn district attorney (Rafe Spall, The Big Short), and an entire community unwilling to dig up old wounds for the sake of the freedom of someone wrongfully accused. If the case sounds familiar, it’s likely because it was featured on a 1992 60 Minutes episode which helps drive home the thought that were it not born from an actual real-life case, Johnny D’s dilemma would be too far-fetched to believe.

The acting in Just Mercy is top notch with Jordan’s star power taking charge as his Stevenson displays a bold charisma and extreme likability while never having to ham it up. His role is one of a David vs. Goliath variety as he puts his career – and his life – on the line as a black man in Alabama, especially with what he’s trying to do.Just Mercy

Larson is grossly underused yet does the best she can with what she’s given. Foxx turns in his best in quite some time as his Johnny D runs the gamut of emotions and always feels real. The actor’s Texas roots undoubtedly play a role in his understanding of the character. Playing the coerced witness is a wonderful Tim Blake Nelson, while O’Shea Jackson is also memorable as a fellow death row inmate convicted by a judge who thought he was guilty simply because “he looked like a murderer.”

Sadly, Cretton never really pushes quite hard enough to make Just Mercy something more than yet another Important Issue film. We feel the message, and we get what the filmmakers are trying to say, but we’ve seen the rather basic narrative structure before, and it never quite reaches beyond the boundaries of what other similar films have done. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to like. Though a bit mechanical, it is a good film with very important issues that need to be addressed. And hats off to Cretton for getting the most from his stellar cast.

The verdict is in: despite its rather formulaic script and well-worn narrative structure, Just Mercy is a film that needs to be seen. It is the celebration of the true heroes who want to change our criminal justice system that treats those who are rich and guilty better than those who are poor and innocent. How’s that for just mercy?

3/5 stars

Just Mercy


Blu-ray Details:

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Just Mercy

MPAA Rating: PG-13 on appeal for crude sexual content and language.
136 mins
: Destin Daniel Cretton
Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets.
: Drama
They're giving Dirty Rotten Men a run for their Money.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Every generation has its hero. Meet ours."
Theatrical Distributor:
Warner Bros.
Official Site:
Release Date:
January 10, 2020
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available.
Synopsis: World-renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson works to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner.

Just Mercy

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