Back in 2013, Destin Daniel Cretton made a feature-length version of his short film, Short Term 12. While it largely went unnoticed, it highlighted Cretton’s vision as a master of the many different languages of film. Instead of saying things outright, emotion and exposition were conveyed through a look, a moment of silence, a piece of musical inspiration or even a characters absence. A film full of people afraid that they aren’t good enough feels that way because of a director pushing to prove he was. Since then he has continued to tell stories in different ways by showing instead of doing. Just Mercy however in some ways feels like a step backwards, instead, resting on the facts of this true story instead of making this story his own.
Telling the story of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) who in 1989 moved to Alabama and began representing Death Row inmates who received inadequate representation, either because of their race or their standing. When he takes the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a wrongly convicted man who has already spent 2 years on death row, he not only faces his biggest case to date but also the injustices of a legal system that is crippled by systemic racism.
Set over a four year period, Just Mercy works best when it looks at the world outside of the courtroom. Not only is the film more colourful and lively when it explores the hidden communities of Alabama but it has more chances to service the story in visual ways. When trapped within the grey of the jail or the dull colours of the courtroom, Just Mercy flounders. Not only because it relies on stilted dialogue but it, unfortunately, feels like a film you’ve seen many times before.
The moments here that stick are the ones that require no discussion. Be it the unbelievable yet true rulings by people claiming to be impartial or the wordless camaraderie offered freely to an inmate being marched to the electric chair. Cretton understands the racism that drives his story but his story isn’t one of colour or creed so much as an idea that we all deserve the same level of respect. Nothing drives this home more than an execution scene that is both stark and impactful. Cretton cleverly makes a moment about loss about how we all connect to the shared reality of death.
Cretton and writer Andrew Lanham manage to bring out the humanity in their characters through the way they interact with one another without ever bringing race into it. People with nothing in common bond over gospel music or just how they are different. While their politics are inherent in the story, Just Mercy never preaches even if it justifiably could and part of that constraint comes through the terrific performances. Not only does Jordan provide the right amount of youthful optimism but Foxx’s understanding of Walter’s shattered hope make their double act more of a push and pull.
The addition of Brie Larson as Bryan’s colleague Eva Ansley, however, adds little to a film with no need for her. Lumbered with exposition, never really developed into a character with skin in the game, Larson is left to play with nothing. While the rest of the films varied supporting characters feel more important with much less to work with, especially Tim Blake Nelson’s excellent turn as a career criminal with links to Walter’s case. Full of bluster yet empathetic in equal measure, he manages to do more in his minimal screentime.
While it has the tendency to get stuck in the mud when it tells its story like a conventional procedural, Cretton brings enough of his signature style to differentiate his story from others. With the help of cinematographer Brett Pawlak, Cretton has integrated the two worlds of Alabama from the destitution of the black community to the comfortable living of the middle class white one, into a film looking to bring people together, not because of what we look like, but what we do and what we might have in common if we saw things in glorious technicolour.