LFF 2019: Just Mercy Review
Despite the Academy inviting a plethora of younger people from a variety of backgrounds to join, the films up for awards contention are increasingly closer to formulas that worked back in the 80s and 90s. Last year, Green Book triumphed by following the Driving Miss Daisy formula, and this year, Destin Daniel Cretton is making his play for the big prize with a film that’s part Dead Man Walking, part Mississippi Burning. Just Mercy is the kind of old fashioned, by the numbers legal drama that doesn’t get made anymore: an awe inspiring true story told in the broadest way possible, simplifying wherever it can in order to cut through to any white viewers who may have racist inclinations.
Which is a strange way to approach this story. Cretton mercifully doesn’t bend over backwards to draw parallels between this injustice from nearly three decades prior and the current political climate, when cases like this go unreported every day. But by treating this largely as a period piece, told in a crowd pleasing but unfashionable style, it feels sorely lacking in the urgency it needs to start conversations on this subject, settling for being a by-the-numbers historical drama instead.
Michael B. Jordan stars as Bryan Stevenson, a law graduate from Harvard who specialises in offering legal assistance to those on death row. He faces pushback when he sets up a firm dedicated to helping these people with company director Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), but that’s nothing compared to the controversy that arises when he aims to get justice in one of Alabama’s most notorious criminal cases: Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man facing the death penalty for murdering a teenage white girl. As Bryan looks deeper into the case, he sees that lots of evidence proving Walter’s innocence was prevented from being seen by a jury, with the local authorities refusing to reopen the case. Naturally, he takes this fight into his own hands - despite the anger it causes among the local white community.
Once again, Cretton gets great performances from his ensemble cast; in particular an uncharacteristically vulnerable Jamie Foxx, and a small appearance from Tim Blake Nelson who, as prisoner Ralph Myers, appears to be channeling his previous turn as Buster Scruggs. Both actors become the centre of attention in each scene they appear in - and both show that as good a movie star as Michael B. Jordan can be, he isn’t quite yet an actor who can hold his own against an ensemble of greats.
But the performances that truly excel achieve greatness in spite of the movie, which mostly operates as a blow-by-blow procedural of how the real case went down, very infrequently diving into the more interesting (and sadly, still relevant) political context around it. Characters are barely fleshed out beyond their professions, or relationship to Walter McMillan; Cretton appears to be keeping everything as simple as possible to hit all the expected story beats, and transform this awe inspiring true story into an easily digestible crowdpleaser. It ends on a triumphant note, but in the days after viewing, this reliance on formula becomes a crutch - no big screen telling of this story should feel as forgettable in retrospect as Just Mercy is.
Just Mercy screens at The BFI London Film Festival