Just Mercy Review
Just Mercy is a true story about falsely convicted murderer Walter 'Johnnie D' McMillan (Jamie Foxx) who has been put on death row. The narrative focus is on Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a wet behind the ears, optimistic Harvard educated defence attorney. His naïve navigation of the racially corrupt justice system is the focus for the audience and makes up the backbone for this highly emotive and successful film. The film is a courtroom drama with a sharp racial edge, and though it lacks generic plot at points it delivers emotional hits with great success.
Destin Daniel Cretton (Director) controls the tone of the film with amazing skill. He places you within the shoes of the characters, exploring the hardships of growing and living within a black community that lives under the shadow of a wider racist society. The fear for safety and the threat of being arrested hangs over the community like a dark cloud. Cretton appeals to the audience with emotional and very human scenes which lull the audience into a false sense of security before shattering it with something shocking. This technique is fantastic for emphasising when something emotional is taking place. The change from relative safety to instant fear for the characters leaves the audience feeling tense and impresses on you the emotion and feelings of the characters themselves. The characters fear for the lives they carefully build which could come crashing down at any moment just because of the colour of their skin, this wary tenseness is transferred to the audience and makes the scenes that much more poignant. Cretton is an incredibly clever director manipulating the emotions of his audience so that every minute of his filming hits the audience and leaves them feeling transported. The emotional manipulation within the film is done with incredible skill however, at points the plot itself feels generic. It has all the genetic makeup of a court room drama from the classic research scenes to the obligatory dramatic speeches on which freedom hangs, these factors detract a little from the creative directing which leaves the audience hanging onto fleeting moments of happiness as the characters within do. Though skilled at emotional manipulation, the plot and writing of the film are one of the few overarching limitations that I found it hard to escape when watching.
Michael B. Jordan is tremendous as the lead, bringing emotion to the role. His performance drives the film and gives it heart and, as the sole lead in the beginning, his performance moves the action on and helps the audience find their way into the world of Monroeville. He is dynamic and believable, and his character makes this film a success. Michael B. Jordan is a fantastic character actor and advocate for Black people's voices and likewise, Jamie Foxx is incredible in his role as the wrongly accused Johnnie D. His performance is one of the strongest in the film alongside that of Michael B. Jordan. The emotions he feels as his character is abused and tossed aside are reflected to the audience with skill, delivering the hardest and most powerful emotional beats. He owns the screen. Though he is not as present as Jordan in the first half of the film when he emerges, he dominates it and drives the film home. It was a devastatingly good piece of acting and should have been recognised in the up and coming award shows with a nomination.
The acting of Brie Larson on the other hand, is the only real disappointment. The Oscar winner (Room, Best Actress) does not have enough to do considering the skill of her previous performances. Her character is a sounding board for Stevenson (Jordan) to bounce ideas off and has no character arc of her own. This feels like a missed opportunity that could have been exploited better by the director, but it is easy to become lost in the shadow of the incredible performances that dominated the screen, and there were a lot of them within this film. The acting was on whole, phenomenal.
Just Mercy is a film that hits hard and is difficult to watch at times, but it deserves recognition and tells an important story. You will be on the edge of your seat throughout or watching through splayed fingers. This film will make you laugh and cry, it will enrage you at the blatant bigotry and sometimes all three emotions will overtake you at once. It is wrong that it has zero Academy award nominations, but I believe this certainly says more about the Academy than the film.