“Just Mercy” insists on the complicated humanity of everyone.
Bryan Stevenson, the real-life lawyer who is its subject (and who spoke at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2018) has devoted his legal practice to helping prisoners get off death row. “Just Mercy” finds him tackling one of his more sympathetic cases — Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian, who was convicted of a murder he could not possibly have committed — but the movie takes care to underscore Stevenson’s belief that nobody should be executed, murderers included.
Part courtroom drama, biopic and legal procedural, “Just Mercy” follows Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he sets up his practice, with the help of Brie Larson as a plain-spoken legal assistant who believes in his cause. (Larson worked with “Just Mercy” director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton on “The Glass Castle” and her movie breakthrough, the brilliant “Short Term 12,” which you should stream right now if you missed it.)
Almost immediately, Stevenson begins a crusade for Walter, who has given up hope but reluctantly helps Stevenson in his quest to prove his innocence. That involves breaking down the testimony of another incarcerated man, played by Tim Blake Nelson. He’s spectacular in the movie’s only showy role, a key witness against Walter in a murder that we are repeatedly reminded happened in the same Alabama town as the events on which Harper Lee based “To Kill a Mockingbird,” another case in which an innocent black man was condemned.
With its Oscar-pedigreed cast, important topic and high quality, “Just Mercy” is the sort of movie you’d expect to find in the conversation for next week’s Oscar nominations, but somehow, it is not. That may be because it avoids the sort of easy answers and fake uplift voters seem to be attracted to. (Joel P. West’s musical score, which sounds like something you’d hear in a candle store — or, um, “Green Book” — is the one generically “inspirational” element in the film.)
Take, for instance, Jordan’s quiet performance. It’s easy to envision a firebrand leading the anti-capital punishment charge, but Jordan goes in the opposite direction with a very controlled performance. In frustrating moments when another actor might swear or shout, Jordan simply collects himself and moves on. It’s like calm and decency are Stevenson’s superpowers. (The movie is based on its subject’s memoir, which is why he may come off as just a touch too saintly.)
It’s a movie of tiny, well-judged details. The most mesmerizing moment, and it only lasts about a second, occurs when Nelson is on the stand, wavering in his plan to correct the record. Instead of remonstrating with him, Jordan turns his back on Nelson and shoots Foxx a series of looks that say, essentially, “Yes, I’m worried about this but stay strong. We will figure this out.” (Foxx, whose performance is equally subdued, also has a great nonverbal exchange with Nelson.)
Likening the plight of people of color in today’s legal system to lynchings, “Just Mercy” is rousing not because it’s about justice but because it’s about people who know our world is unfair and who fight to make sure that justice shines through once in a while. It’s a tough-minded and hopeful movie because it is unusually interested in making us see difficult truths and care about people we might prefer to forget about.