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  • Bruce Klein

Just Mercy: Review

Just Mercy is a spellbinding and well-paced film with some terrific scenes. Although the script could use a softer touch, this outstanding movie keeps you on the edge of your seat as the hero sets out to help wrongly accused prisoners on death row.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) graduates Harvard law school and heads for Alabama in a beat-up car with a grant, and commitment. He visits a prison where guards resent and intimidate him as he interviews one potential client after another. During this mélange he meets Jonny Dee (Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a prisoner who is angry and has given up on freeing himself since being convicted of murdering a white girl working at a dry cleaner.


Bryan is tested again and again. The town’s white establishment doesn't like a Northern lawyer coming to help poor Southern back men on death row. They don’t want this man stirring things up and freeing a murderer. And the town sheriff is hard-hearted, belligerent and bigoted. The State Officer is bigoted and hostile (although his feelings do change little by little). But Bryan hears evidence that was ignored during the trial, and tracks down a white prisoner who was Jonny’s key witness. Unfortunately, the witness gets put off and decides not to help. Yet, Bryan remains determined and has an equally determined unpaid assistant in the form of Academy Award winner, Brie Larson.


Naturally, Jonny is hopeless at first, even fearful, when he sees a chance for himself in Bryan’s hands. Bryan is naive but determined. He begins his court battle and is sunk by a loss along the way, but returns to fight. A hearing is arranged to reexamine testimony, in order to take the case to a higher court, or even dismiss the case entirely. Bryan makes an excellent opening argument, inspiring Jonny Dee’s pastor to say, “What is needed is justice, mercy and grace.” During the court proceedings, Jonny gains respect for himself and realizes that Bryan was the one who laid the seed for his newfound respect.


Although, the lines are too direct and preachy at times, the film does have some terrific scenes, especially when Brian visit’s Jonny’s family. A looser approach would have led the drama toward more realism. The writer/director, Destin Daniel Cretton, is a good screenwriter, but the movie would have gained much if he turned the directing over to someone who understood the drama of dialogue. Woody Allen writes and directs films but his acting ability informs his direction. Often, he is the lead character or the lead is a vessel for an Allen-like character. To my knowledge, Mr. Cretton has never acted professionally.


The movie is similar to The Green Book and To Kill a Mocking Bird. But Just Mercy carves out its own dramatic territory because in Bryan, we have a committed legal warrior who keeps fighting. Jamie Foxx’s performance in Just Mercy exceeds his Academy Award winning performance in Ray. His portrayal simply astonishes. You feel his pain and good nature with no soppiness. Younger children will not get this picture, but the twelve and over set will get it. After the movie, talk to the youngsters who came with you. A movie like Just Mercy seldom comes along so go see it for its excellent portrayal of a social blight under attack.