Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx combine to elevate director Destin Daniel Cretton’s (“Short Term 12”) retelling of the wrongful imprisonment of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian.
This story is one unfortunately all too familiar to the American judicial system, but one who’s specifics the masses may not be too familiar with. We follow the story of the wrongfully convicted Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (played here by the subtly sublime Jamie Foxx). A family man who, in 1987, was arrested and charged with the brutal killing of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, despite his stone-cold alibi (McMillian was at a fish fry among family, friends and — believe it or not — a police officer). On the other side of the metal bars is Jordan’s Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which over the last 30 years has overturned a number of wrongful convictions for those unfairly placed on death row. Stevenson, along with his Director of Operations Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), as you’ve probably already guessed, take on the case of “Johnny D.”
There’s a high degree of simplicity and safety in this dot-to-dot-esque movie. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a film that has a huge responsibility to not only tell an individual story of injustice and pain, but also to enlighten its audience to the torture felt by those who have been wrongfully sentenced to death.
Jordan turns in the usual passionate and sharp performance, seen time and time again on screen, from “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther” to the “Creed” duology. As fresh-faced lawyer Stevenson, Jordan is measured, yet passionate, while yet again displaying his trademark physical acting, none more so than when he first visits McMillian.
And as McMillian, Jamie Foxx undoubtedly turns in his best performance since “Django Unchained.” As “Johnny D,” incarcerated not on lawful grounds, but on the false testimony fabricated by the Alabama sheriff, Tom Tate, Foxx is never better than when he starts to believe he could be released —most notably in his exchanges with Jordan. The hope builds in his eyes clear as day before the film’s climax (inevitable as it is) leaves a lump in the throat.
As mentioned above, the film has a responsibility to remain truthful to those it explores, meaning its writing, direction and score take a back seat to the raw emotion of the story. There’s no flashy, quotable dialogue, and Cretton is not trying out-there directorial techniques in order to entertain; he leaves that to his stars — except for one of the most viscerally moving scenes of the year.
The scene in question is an extremely tough watch. It centers around Herb Richardson, a death row inmate imprisoned after his PTSD led to him making an explosive that killed a young girl. Played by Rob Morgan, Herb’s storyline is a central part to the film’s first hour, as we learn about the struggles he’s faced since returning from the war, and how his lack of proper (or any) legal representation has ultimately and tragically led him to his death. The scene in question is rousing, stirring, chilling and downright frightening. From its riveting sound created by Herb’s former inmates as they stand in defiant support, to Cretton’s decision to cut between his three stars, this scene (without trying to spoil it) is one leathered with the injustice that Bryan and his team have fought for over 30 years now to overturn.
If there is a gripe to be had with the film it has to be the (almost) waste of Larson, who is never really given license to shine, but either way, the film belongs to Foxx and Morgan.
This film presents itself in a basic shell, but with powerful performances to drive it to its conclusion. The subject matter on its own makes it a must-see.
“Just Mercy” hits theaters January 10, 2020.
Theo Fisher is a Film and Journalism graduate from Cheltenham, England, who has written about film for multiple websites, doing reviews, awards season coverage and opinion pieces. His favorite film is “Whiplash” but I’m a sucker for a good sports film like “Moneyball.”