Jor­dan and Foxx shine in ur­gent drama ‘Just Mercy’

Film demon­strates how lit­tle has changed since era of ‘To Kill a Mock­ing­bird’

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK: There’s usu­ally one film that tops lists when­ever pow­er­ful le­gal thrillers are de­bated – “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird,” set in the 1930s. Now comes a film show­ing how lit­tle has changed since then, based on a mur­der in the same Alabama town where Harper Lee wrote her mas­ter­piece.

“Just Mercy” is the real story of civil rights at­tor­ney Bryan Stevenson and his fight to pre­vent the ex­e­cu­tion of an in­no­cent black man. It is ur­gent, sear­ing and pow­er­ful, led by a first-rate cast. Though it por­trays events more than 25 years ago, it is very much a film for to­day.

Michael B. Jor­dan por­trays Stevenson, who founded the Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive, a le­gal or­ga­ni­za­tion that has suc­cess­fully chal­lenged the death row con­vic­tions of more than 130 in­mates. He was the sub­ject of HBO’s 2019 film “True Jus­tice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equal­ity.”

Stevenson has been a dogged fighter for jus­tice, some­one Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu once called “Amer­ica’s Man­dela.” When Star­bucks was faced with a racially charged up­roar over the ar­rest of two black men at one of its stores in Philadel­phia, it turned to Stevenson for ad­vice.

The film fol­lows one of his first cases, that of Wal­ter McMil­lian – a black pulp­wood worker sen­tenced to death for the 1986 fa­tal shoot­ing of an 18-year-old white woman. Stevenson was able to prove that a key wit­ness had lied and pros­e­cu­tors with­held im­por­tant ev­i­dence.

McMil­lian is played by Jamie Foxx and it is his best work in years – raw, soul­ful and hon­est. Tim Blake Nel­son, as the key wit­ness, also turns in a stun­ning per­for­mance, as does Rob Morgan play­ing a death row in­mate. Brie Lar­son as Stevenson’s as­sis­tant is un­flashy and strong. Jor­dan is the calm, quiet an­chor of the film, his eyes radiating pathos.

In a piv­otal scene, Foxx’s char­ac­ter asks Stevenson why a Har­vard-trained at­tor­ney has come down to the South and risked vi­o­lence to do this le­gal work.

“I know what it’s like to be the shad­ows,” Stevenson re­sponds. “That’s why I’m do­ing this.”

Destin Daniel Cret­ton di­rected the film from a screen­play he cowrote with An­drew Lan­ham, based on Stevenson’s best­selling 2014 mem­oir. Stevenson is also an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, and that en­sures he’s il­lu­mi­nated in the best light.

If there’s one weak­ness in the film, it’s that it some­times veers into ha­giog­ra­phy. The nat­u­ral­ism of the cin­e­matog­ra­phy and act­ing some­times clashes with di­a­logue that seems overly pol­ished.

“I just want to help peo­ple,” Jor­dan says at one point. “I just have to fig­ure out how.”

In an­other scene, Foxx de­clares to his at­tor­ney, “I got my truth back. You gave that to me.”

The film at times fol­lows other great court­room dra­mas that build to an emo­tional con­clu­sion – “My Cousin Vinny,” say, or “A Few Good Men” – but “Just Mercy” has larger and deeper so­cial is­sues con­stantly swirling, in­clud­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, the death penalty and racial pro­fil­ing. If ever there was an ex­am­ple of how film can slide from en­ter­tain­ment to ad­vo­cacy, this is it.

With the ex­cep­tion of Lar­son and a young cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer, no white char­ac­ters come across as any­thing but ve­nal and Alabama is por­trayed as a place where African Amer­i­cans are “guilty the mo­ment you’re born.”

While it ends on a happy note, you cry for all those gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple rail­roaded into a cell. “Just Mercy” is not al­ways an easy film to watch, but it is nec­es­sary.

“Just Mercy” is screen­ing in Beirut-area cin­e­mas.

Jamie Foxx in a scene from “Just Mercy.”

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