Just Mercy is in cinemas on January 23.
Just Mercy is in cinemas on January 23.

Emotional real-life story behind new movie

"Justice has finally been served."

That's a declaration that means something different to the different people whose story is told in Just Mercy, a compassionate and urgent drama about the failure of the US criminal justice system, and the entrenched prejudice that pervades it.

The people who said that line above are the white prosecutors and establishment who locked up Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a pulpwood worker in Alabama for the murder of an 18-year-old blonde white woman, Ronda Morrison.

For McMillian and his family, there was no justice served.

Jamie Foxx has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for his performance in Just Mercy.
Jamie Foxx has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for his performance in Just Mercy.

Charged, prosecuted and convicted by the institutions of the racist American south in the 1980s, those involved with McMillian's conviction ignored copious witness statements that cleared McMillian of the crime.

But that's an inconvenient narrative for those whose cling to power depends on the status quo and bigotry to continue.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton from a screenplay by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, Just Mercy is a compelling dramatisation of McMillian's fight to overturn his wrongful conviction, and the young, idealistic lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who championed his cause.

But it's not just a retelling of an injustice from 30 years ago, as the end credits make clear, this is a war the real-life Stevenson is still fighting today. Prejudice will never be completely wiped from the hearts of men.

 

Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, a real-life human rights lawyer.
Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, a real-life human rights lawyer.

 

Stevenson, a northerner, was drawn to McMillian's case when he was still finishing law school at Harvard, having come across McMillian and other death row men over the summer.

After graduation, he moves to Alabama, despite his mother's fears, and he sticks out with his sweater vests and neatly pressed pants. With the help of Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Stevenson sets up the Alabama office for a human rights organisation.

McMillian is reluctant to accept Stevenson's help, afraid that what Stevenson offers is false hope. Foxx's quiet and defiant portrayal of McMillian is a reminder of the amazing talent Foxx can draw on when married with the right material.

Stevenson's obstacles to clearing McMillian seems insurmountable at times, faced against a racist sheriff whose handling of the case is at best incompetent and at worst malicious and criminal, and a whole system designed to lock up people some just don't like the look of.

One African-American character says in the film that they have been judged guilty from the moment they were born.

 

Brie Larson in Just Mercy.
Brie Larson in Just Mercy.

Cretton knows he has a great story and excellent performers, so he almost gets out of the way. Here, he's not a showy director, instead stirring together his top notch ingredients and letting it bake.

Cretton displays his strong instincts for where to focus and when. The time spent with McMillian and his fellow inmates on death row - some there due to wrongful convictions and some who did the crime they were accused of - is a merciful portrayal of men the world has deemed monsters and forgotten.

The supporting roles played by Rob Morgan and O'Shea Jackson as two inmates and their bond with McMillian are as important as the drama unfolding in the courtrooms.

The film is a powerful exploration of history and pain, and how prejudice is internalised on whole swathes of people, affecting everything about their experience.

Just Mercy is a deeply moving film, a human story about injustice and justice and how intangible and ephemeral they both really are.

Rating: 4/5

Just Mercy is in cinemas on Thursday, January 23

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