Bryan Stevenson is one of those Americans who can legitimately lay claim to the “hero” mantle. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Stevenson moved to Alabama in 1989 to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization devoted to overturning wrongfully convicted individuals sentenced to death or life in prison — most of them poor and black — and which has since won relief for 130 people.
So perhaps it was an inevitability that Stevenson’s memoir, “Just Mercy,” would find its way to being adapted into what seems like the rarest of cinematic birds these days — a courtroom drama. In the hands of writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), the film of the same name doesn’t break too much new ground for the genre, but it does unpack a case that still feels deeply relevant nearly a quarter-century later.
Like the book, Just Mercy retells one of Stevenson’s first clients: Walter McMillian, a 45-year-old logger with no previous criminal record, but who was nevertheless charged with and convicted of the murder of an 18-year-old woman. Details of the original proceedings align with many perceptions of Southern jurisprudence, including police abuse, flimsy evidence, coerced testimony and an all-white jury, reminders that Jim Crow was still thriving well into the 1980s.
The film also doesn’t waste much time in letting Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, know that his Delaware upbringing and elite education will only go so far in Alabama. The scene in which Stevenson first visits the prison where McMillian confirms that not even being an Ivy League lawyer and accredited bar member can spare a black man from humiliation at the hands of white officers. The local prosecutor who put McMillian away (Rafe Spall) might best be compared to an oil slick.
Still, Stevenson’s idealism never breaks, and Jordan plays him with the warm and reassuring conviction that seems to inhabit nearly all of his roles not named Erik Killmonger. It’s not a bad performance by any measure, but it is devoid of surprise and borderline uninteresting when Cretton’s over stretches the case’s procedural components.
Jaime Foxx, as McMillian, is an excellent scene partner for Jordan, doing some of his best work in years. The opening scene shows McMillian on a job, lively and sporting a wild handlebar mustache; the next time we see him, it’s as a convict who’s become slight, weary, and not interested in restarting the legal process. But that despondence is no hurdle for the crusading Stevenson, who’s convinced there’s enough exculpatory evidence.
While predictable in places, Just Mercy packs its heaviest punches with one of Stevenson’s other clients, Herbert Richardson, a PTSD-stricken veteran played by Rob Morgan (recently seen in The Last Black Man in San Francisco). Even as McMillian’s case shows promise, we can’t — or shouldn’t — overlook Herbert’s despair.
But Just Mercy is, at its heart, a standard legal procedural delivered competently, including a few of the genre’s stock characters, including Tim Blake Nelson as a recanting witness (and a convicted felon himself) and Brie Larson (a Cretton mainstay) as Eva Ansley, the local advocate who went on to build the Equal Justice Initiative with Stevenson. Jordan gets to flex his gravitas and deliver the big, bold arguments that still resonate today.
It’s a legal coincidence and storytelling providence that McMillian’s original case was held in Monroe County, Alabama, the same place where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. As a piece of art, Just Mercy may not rise to those same dramatic heights, but it may be more important simply to show Bryan Stevenson’s determination when there’s still so much more work to be done.