Not to be crass, but is there any bigger indicator that it’s Oscar season than when the glut of inspirational biopics start to hit theaters? Yes, Just Mercy is clearly Oscar bait, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining and hopeful tale of a man determined to right some wrongs in his little corner of the world.
Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michael B. Jordan stars as attorney Bryan Stevenson, fresh out of law school with some federal funds in his pocket to move to Alabama and work to free wrongly condemned death row prisoners. Joining him is local Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a woman deeply committed to fighting for justice to set an example for her young son. Soon Stevenson spends much of his time talking to and representing death row inmates, including a jaded man named Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Fox), sentenced to death for allegedly killing a young white teenage girl at a laundromat. As it becomes clear that the court passed a sentence on very little evidence, Stevenson becomes determined to prove his client’s innocence while dealing with pressure and threats from overwhelmingly white local officials and law enforcement.
If you think you can predict the plot to Just Mercy, you can. While the story itself is admirable, it is told with overly familiar beats that make for an engaging but bland viewing. Jordan’s Stevenson is nothing but quietly heroic the whole time, which makes for a boring protagonist. Jordan tries to juice up the performance, giving us peeks at rage and hurt behind his eyes and in his character’s outdoor runs, but those are only flashes. Such flashes of brilliance from performances are what gives the film merit. Foxx predictably shines as Johnny D, a man who doesn’t shy away from his faults but is steadfast in his belief that he is innocent. Both actors bring subtle physicality to their roles that keep your eyes trained on them.
The standout flash of brilliance is Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson, a Death Row inmate and Vietnam veteran who, in the throes of PTSD, left a bomb on a front porch that ended up killing a young girl. Wracked with guilt, he believes he deserves to die for his crimes, even though he was denied mental health services before the crime. Morgan delivers a heartbreaking and nuanced performance, one that will stick in your brain more than anything else in the film. Larson does what she can as Eva Ansley, but mostly seems to be a reminder, through wigs and clothing, of the time period in which Just Mercy is set. Rate Spall, as county district attorney Tommy Champan, gives the role more of a comedic turn in his oversized 80s glasses, turning the role into more of an “evil villain is a bumbling idiot” rather than wholly evil.
Based on a true story, Just Mercy is clearly an important and inspiring story of a man willing to take on the status quo in the name of justice. It’s just too bad that it can’t seem to rise above the cliches.