"Just Mercy" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Co-written by Andrew Lanham (based on book by Bryan Stevenson)
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson

‘An Inspiring True Story’

When it comes to the most inspiring individuals in the world, Bryan Stevenson is definitely one of them. A renowned civil rights defense attorney, Stevenson has dedicated his life to fighting racial injustice in America. Throughout his legal career, Stevenson has spearheaded cases that have saved dozens of innocent prisoners from the death penalty. However, arguably the most prominent case that Stevenson has fought is that of Walter McMillian. McMillian is an African-American man that was wrongfully convicted of the murder of an 18 year-old girl and sentenced to death in 1986. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Stevenson from striving to prove McMillian’s innocence in court.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest film “Just Mercy” brings Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring true story to the big-screen. An engrossing, gripping and deeply moving legal drama, it powerfully depicts Stevenson’s fight against racial injustice. With his latest feature, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton has crafted a timely film about racism in the American legal system. Packed with captivating cinematography, riveting storytelling and powerful performances from the cast, it offers the prime example of an effective courtroom drama. Although “Just Mercy” is undeniably uplifting, it is not a film without flaws. It is slightly long, and builds to the predictable conclusion that we’ve come to expect from films in the genre. That being said, it offers rousing entertainment that is sure to satisfy fans of courtroom dramas.

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling memoir, “Just Mercy” tells a true story of racial injustice. Michael B. Jordan stars in the lead role as Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic lawyer that defends wrongfully convicted prisoners on death row. After graduating from Harvard, Stevenson heads to Alabama to take on the notorious case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Walter is an African-American man that has been unfairly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. As Stevenson fights for Walter’s life, he soon discovers the blatant racism in the legal system.

Few filmmakers are bold enough to confront a sensitive subject like racism, but writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton is an exception. Ever since he burst onto the scene with “Short Term 12” in 2013, Cretton has proven to be a fantastic indie filmmaker. His directorial debut “Short Term 12” was lauded for its authentic depiction of a residential treatment facility and its troubled occupants. With “Just Mercy”, however, Cretton has crafted his first adaptation of a real-life legal case. It is not easy to bring a controversial legal case to the big-screen, but Cretton pulls it off seamlessly. Using gorgeous cinematography, Cretton draws viewers into the life of a lawyer that fights racial injustice. From intimate close-ups to long involving scenes, the cinematography keeps viewers invested in the legal proceedings. Cretton excels at recreating the legal case, and his latest feature is worth watching on the big-screen for this reason alone.

If real-life court cases do not attract you to the theater, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Just Mercy”. The film is extremely well-written, and offers a timely look at racial injustice in America. Cretton’s screenplay is superb, and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with compelling characters, riveting arguments and timely themes, the script elevates the movie to another level. When adapting a true story to the big-screen, screenwriters often take liberties with the source material. Instead of sticking to the facts, it is common to sensationalize a story for the sake of entertainment. Thankfully, though, Cretton avoids these pitfalls with “Just Mercy”. Using Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Cretton achieves a sense of realism that is rare to see in films of this kind. Through an engaging screenplay, Cretton keeps viewers engrossed in the life of a wrongfully convicted prisoner.

In terms of acting, the entire ensemble is at the top of its game. Every star gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression, but the film is mainly a showcase for its two leads.

Michael B. Jordan delivers his finest performance to date as Bryan Stevenson. Jordan is arguably best known for playing the invincible boxer Adonis Creed in the “Creed” films. With “Just Mercy”, however, he takes on the most mature role of his career thus far. This is the actor unlike you’ve ever seen him before: intense, charismatic and commanding in his first ever legal role. It is not easy to portray a real-life lawyer, but Jordan pulls it off effortlessly. With riveting expressions, he conveys the anger, determination and humiliation of a lawyer that experiences racism. It’s a powerful performance from one of the most promising actors working today.

Jamie Foxx is fantastic in the role of a wrongfully convicted prisoner on death row. While Jordan gets the showier role, Foxx is also astonishing and worthy of awards recognition. With soulful expressions, he captures the plight of a man that is falsely accused of murder. Whether he is seeking reassurance from his lawyer or fondly missing his family, Foxx is convincing in every aspect of the role. It’s a heartbreaking performance that proves that Foxx can be a formidable actor when he’s given the right material to work with.

Although “Just Mercy” is undeniably an uplifting courtroom drama, ultimately it is not a flawless film. At nearly two and a half hours, it is slightly long and suffers from a lengthy running-time. With Joel P. West’s heartfelt score, Destin Daniel Cretton keeps the film moving at an engaging pace during the first hour. However, once the film enters its courtroom climax, it starts to lose steam and test the viewer’s patience. Moreover, the film suffers from a formulaic ending. After building tension over two hours, Cretton chooses to end the movie on a predictable note. It’s an overly sentimental finale that isn’t entirely effective at bringing the film to a satisfying conclusion. Courtroom dramas thrive based on the power of their endings, and this is where “Just Mercy” falls short of expectations.

Nevertheless, fans of legal dramas will definitely enjoy “Just Mercy” and so will movie-goers seeking enlightening entertainment this awards season. A rousing courtroom drama, it sheds light on important issues facing the world today. At a time when racism remains prevalent in the U.S. legal system, it’s a stirring reminder that the stories of real-life heroes are worth telling on the big-screen.

3.5/5 stars

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