JUST MERCY spotlights the efforts of a black Harvard graduate who goes to Alabama to try to help a death row inmate claiming he’s innocent. Based on a true story, the film elicits a degree of discomfort and dismay for me, but not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect.
JUST MERCY feels like it’s too afraid to really look deeply and honestly at the people involved in the situation, or at the system that allows potentially innocent black men to wind up on death row in the first place. Sticking to the same stale portrayal of asshole, racist cops who engage in the typical mistreatment and abuse of black people, the story never chooses to take on the greater issue of a culture that enables those abuses to grow and thrive. It also feels unrealistic that some of the black characters would have endured much of what they do without ever seeming all that enraged by it. Even before social media, I’m pretty certain people experienced outrage. Several events in this film would have had my blood boiling if they’d happened to me. I’m disappointed at how seemingly easily the characters keep their emotions in check and accept the circumstances as they are. I don’t know, maybe they’re just better people than I.
Michael B. Jordan (BLACK PANTHER) plays Lawyer Bryan Stevenson, while Brie Larson (CAPTAIN MARVEL) plays the local presence helping him out. Neither are given much depth in the writing and often must try to create that depth through their performances. Jamie Foxx (RAY) as Walter McMillan also fleshes out his character using facial expressions carrying meaning that the script excludes. Tim Blake Nelson (OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU) delights me with his portrayal of Ralph Myers, a poor white man also caught up on the wrong side of the law. But almost all of this film’s power arises from the subplot about Herbert Richardson. Rob Morgan’s portrayal of the death row inmate entrances me. His story elevates this movie considerably. In fact, without it, I don’t know that JUST MERCY has enough power to make it at all memorable. Essentially everything truly emotional hits in moments involving Herbert Richardson.
Part of the dismay I experience with JUST MERCY comes from the fact that these events happen not all that long ago, with most of them transpiring in the 1990’s. I realize that I sometimes exist in a bubble encased in rose-colored glass, and I like to believe that racism ended sometime in the late 1970’s, even though it obviously hasn’t. Just let me live the lie! I simply don’t want to accept that there are people in the world, even today, who think differences in melanin levels have any real bearing on anything. In my mind, people should be judged on their actions, intentions, and treatment of others, never on their beliefs, relatives, or the color of their skin. But apparently, I’m an anomaly for thinking this way, as countless people across this country, and around the world, define a person by something over which that person has no control. This movie paints over my rose-colored glass by reminding me of the fact that after all this time, we as a society, haven’t learned much about how to treat each other.
This movie also makes me contemplate the death penalty in ways I never have before. As a Texan, I grew up hearing about it and understanding it on a particular level, but I never really gave it much thought. JUST MERCY makes me reevaluate that.
In addition, JUST MERCY dispenses a surprising gut-punch during the closing credits when describing what happens to these people after the film’s events have passed. Overall, it definitely provides food for thought that I am still digesting. Although it’s incredibly formulaic, I believe the film offers some value by illuminating potential issues with the death penalty, mental illness, and systemic racism. I find it overall engaging, despite the overused tropes, but I truly wish that Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham took more chances with the screenplay. It appears they played it safe to appeal to a broader (white) audience, but in doing that, they missed some opportunities to create something explosive that would have had audiences talking about it for years.