Covideodrome: Just Mercy (2019)

A timely dramatisation of an historic injustice

A temporary replacement for TMINE’s Orange Thursday feature in which I review a readily available movie you’ve probably already seen

It’s funny what a difference a couple of weeks makes. When I watched this over the Bank Holiday weekend in May, Just Mercy (2019) was just a movie about an important subject – something more or less in the same vein as The Banker (2020), being about historic discrimination against African-Americans.

It was a bit more potent than The Banker, however, seeing as it also directly addressed the issue of capital punishment in the modern day, particularly in southern states like Alabama that have a 10% inaccuracy rate when it comes to Death Row prisoners. But that was more or less its scope.

But with the current situation in America, Just Mercy is taking on new significance, since it’s also an indictment of racism and the police’s attitudes to black people, particularly black men. In the US, Warner Bros is making the movie free on all digital platforms for the whole of June.

That’s apparently a step too far for the rest of the world – apparently, whatever lessons the movie has to offer that make it important everyone see it in the US aren’t applicable elsewhere – so you’re all going to have to pay to watch this real-life story about a Harvard lawyer (Michael B Jordan) who decides to open a service in Alabama dedicated to correcting judicial injustices, starting with the wrongful incarceration of small business owner Jamie Foxx.

I’ll let you know if it’s worth it after the trailer and the jump.

Just Mercy (2020)

Available on iTunes and Amazon Prime

Plot

After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.

In the years that follow, Stevenson encounters racism and legal and political manoeuvrings as he tirelessly fights for McMillian’s life.

TMINE verdict

Just Mercy is a strong, flash-less telling of a startling story with an equally strong cast. Using the same ‘just the facts’ approach of the likes of Dark Water (2019), it tells its story, from Foxx’s arrest and Jordan’s establishment of his new centre through Foxx’s many years of incarceration and Jordan’s efforts to free him all the way to the final judicial hearing to re-determine Foxx’s guilty or innocence.

The script is strong and pulls no punches, yet also is subtle enough not to portray the story as simply one of bad guys and good guys. While there is clear and overt racism in some quarters, this is as much a story of structural racism as The Banker was. The movie shows how the system is loaded against black people, and how grandstanding, lack of resources, a ‘be tough on crime’ approach and general attitudes towards those accused of crimes can result in hideous misjustices.

Foxx is generally a morally upright figure in his community. But as he had an affair with a married white woman, her husband spreads word that he’s guilty of other things and soon everyone is convinced the Foxx is everything up to and including a drug dealer. When a young woman is found dead, he’s the prime suspect simply because he’s a ‘known bad guy’, and soon the criminal justice system is going full out to prove what it knows to be true – even if that means taking the coerced word of a known white criminal over that of dozens of black citizens who can swear he was elsewhere at the time of the crime.

Michael B Jordan and Brie Larson in Just Mercy

Liberal bias

Director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also shows how hard it is for someone to stand up for legal rights and how structural racism plays its part here, too. Jordan’s efforts with (frequent Cretton collaborator) Brie Larson to set up his legal centre are hampered by people wondering why he wants to help the guilty, people’s belief he’s an ambulance chaser after their money and a general assumption that he’ll bring their neighbourhood/office building into disrepute through the people he’ll associate with.

But there’s also extraordinary overt racism and intimidation from the police and other institutions, such as when he’s forced to strip before entering prison, even though that’s illegal, since he’s a lawyer.

A minor theme is also class-based, with no one exactly sure why a Harvard lawyer is bothering poor folk and whether he can understand what they’re going through, black or not.

Just good story-telling

While inevitably you can guess how it all pans out at the end and the movie pulls all the usual emotional levers along the way, Just Mercy avoids being too obvious, is rarely simply agitprop and even Jordan’s main legal nemesis is treated sympathetically, rather than as a moustache-twirling villain. There’s the occasional Very Important Speech, but at a natural, rather than Aaron Sorkin rate of occurrence.

The cast are great, particularly Michael B Jordan, although Foxx plays his role a little bit as a caricature. The almost unrecognisable and well accented Ralph Spall is also stunning.

If ever there was a movie for our current situation, Just Mercy is it. Highly recommended.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
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