Thursday, January 16, 2020

Movie Review: Just Mercy

Just Mercy *** / *****
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton.
Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham based on the memoir by Bryan Stevenson.
Starring:  Michael B. Jordan (Bryan Stevenson), Jamie Foxx (Walter McMillian), Brie Larson (Eva Ansley), Tim Blake Nelson (Ralph Myers), Rafe Spall (Tommy Champan), O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Anthony Ray Hinton), Claire Bronson (Mrs. Chapman), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Darnell Houston), Rob Morgan (Herbert Richardson), Drew Scheid (Linus), Tonea Stewart (Mrs. Coleman), Rhoda Griffis (Judge Pamela Bachab), Denitra Isler (Evelyn), Steve Coulter (Judge Buren), Karan Kendrick (Minnie McMillian), Lindsay Ayliffe (Judge Foster), Michael Harding (Sheriff Tate), C.J. LeBlanc (John McMillian). 
It’s hard not to think of To Kill a Mockingbird when watching Just Mercy – and not just because it takes place in Monroeville, Alabama, home of Harper Lee, and several characters tells protagonist Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) that he should visit the Mockingbird Museum – it being “one of the great Civil Rights landmarks in the South). It’s because the story told here, set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, about Stevenson, an idealist, Harvard educated lawyer from Delaware, who comes to Alabama to work with Death Row inmates who are mostly poor, mostly black, and some event innocent, hits those Mockingbird notes so heavily that it’s clear that co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton wants you to think of To Kill a Mockingbird, the book and the movie with Gregory Peck throughout.
I don’t think that comparison helps Just Mercy very much. For one thing, as good as Michael B. Jordan is here – and he’s very good, and there are times you sense he wants to take his character in a more interesting, darker direction than the movie allows, he isn’t Gregory Peck in Mockingbird – a towering performance, and a prototype for this type of role. For another, Peck’s Mockingbird came out in 1962, Lee’s novel earlier, and for its time and place, it was daring. But this is 2019, and yet for the most part, Just Mercy plays like a movie that could have made at any time since the Civil Rights movement. It isn’t particularly daring, it isn’t particularly challenging, and it’s the type of film about black suffering that lets everyone off the hook. The racist bad guys are clearly racist – so white viewers aren’t going to question their own actions. There is a lot of talk about the system here, but I don’t think the film does a particularly good job of depicting systematic racism – the racism that results in more black and brown people on Death Row in the first place. It is a film about white racism, that lets white people off the hook – even the prison guard in the film who exerts his petty power to punish Stevenson when he first enters the prison, comes around after he gets to know some black people, perhaps for the first time.
We’ve seen all of this before – and yet, in the hands of Cretton and Jordan and Jamie Foxx – as Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to death for a crime he clearly didn’t commit, even as the film hits all the clichés we know it’s going to hit, it still works. Jordan has become one of the best, and certainly most charming, of actors working in American film today – and he’s very good here, whether he’s being a sympathetic ear for McMillian’s family, or delivering arguments in court, or watching another of his clients (a man who is guilty) die in the electric chair. It’s the type of role that Denzel Washington in the 1980s or ‘90s would do – or Sidney Poitier in the 1960s – and Jordan plays it very well. There are moments where you sense Jordan wants to go farther here – wants to tap into the black anger that made his performance in Black Panther so good, so conflicted. But that may take the character, and the movie, into some places that would make the white audience uncomfortable – so the film doesn’t go there. Foxx is better – particularly early – when he believes there is no hope for him, when the system is rigged against him. He’s also quite good later, in the more clichéd scenes this story requires – but it’s those early scenes I remember.
And yet, the film may be better in its depiction of smaller character. Brie Larson, who real breakthrough role was in Cretton’s great Short Term 12, is wasted here as Stevenson’s co-worker, although she’s such a good actress she still leaves an impression in the way she carries herself, the way she smokes a cigarette, etc. Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding), the man responsible for McMillian’s arrest, is a one note villain, and the D.A. Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), who wasn’t in office when McMillian was convicted, but now defends the trial, isn’t much better. But the two best characters – and perhaps performances – in the film are more minor characters. Tim Blake Nelson is typically great as Ralph Myers – a poor white man, a career criminal, and the only real witness or evidence against McMillian – whose story is so ridiculous no one should have believed it. He is all false bravado at first, and you are prepared to hate him – but gradually, you see him as a victim as well – the system uses and abuses poor people of all colors. And Rob Morgan is truly exceptional as Herbert Richardson – another of the Death Row inmates, and one who is guilty – he planted a bomb that killed a young woman. Stevenson takes his case anyway, and tries to get a stay – Richardson was a Vietnam vet, with mental health issues stemming from the war – circumstances that were not brought up, but perhaps could have lessened his sentenced. Morgan only has a few scenes – but you will remember him, his slow, stuttering talk, and his final moments long after the rest of the movie fades.
Just Mercy works on its own terms, I guess. I just wish it had more ambition – that it recognized the way things have changed since To Kill a Mockingbird, and took more chances – even if it means making a thornier movie with less mass (white) appeal. There are moments here where you see what this film could have been – and I wish would have been.

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