When Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) first comes to Monroe County Alabama, locals — the white ones, at least — keep telling him he needs to visit the museum dedicated to hometown hero Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, as if that’s all he needs to know about race and justice in the American South.
It becomes a little bit of a punchline; one of not many in Just Mercy, a fact-based death-row drama that works as a blunt but effective instrument, thanks largely to its irrefutable message and the central performance of Jamie Foxx as Johnnie D., a man sentenced to die for a crime there’s almost no chance he could have committed.
It’s 1987, and Stevenson, a Delaware native straight out of Harvard Law School, believes he can help inmates like Johnnie, Herbert (Stranger Things‘ Rob Morgan, in a devastating turn), and Anthony (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) — men whose fates often hinged on not much more than an incompetent attorney or a police chief looking for a quick end to an ugly case.
Monroe County, unsurprisingly, doesn’t welcome a young black lawyer, particularly one looking to free the man they’ve already judged and juried as the killer of a white teenager named Ronda Morrisson. (It’s clear to nearly everyone else from the outset that he didn’t do it, though the movie doesn’t get around to addressing who did.)
The only real ally Stevenson finds is a local wife and mother named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, incognito in high-waisted jeans and a mud-colored home perm); together, they methodically rework cases whose incriminating evidence was patchy at best to begin with, and often staggeringly ill-won.
It’s solidly rewarding to watch the wheels of Mercy turn, though the direction (by Destin Daniel Cretton, who helmed 2013’s great Short Term 12) can’t seem to help falling into certain schematics that tend to follow movies like these: the original sin; the uplift; the leering good-old-boy sheriffs; the big-moment court scenes.
What continually floats the film is the commitment of its excellent cast, and the intrinsic truth at its core: that justice shouldn’t be divided by black and white, even if the message that delivers it sometimes is. B