There are few television and film paths as well-worn as the courtroom drama. Think A Few Good Men, JFK, Erin Brockovich and To Kill a Mockingbird. Those are just a handful of the ways we’ve gotten to be one of the 12 Angry Men of the movie theater over the years. It’s a common thematic space because it works so well. Nothing riles us up more than injustice and nothing thrills us more than a perfectly crafted closing argument. Add in a little bit of judge corruption and we won’t move for hours.
In this way, Just Mercy joins a beloved genre tradition. It tells the incredible real-life story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his work to bring justice to wrongly convicted death-row inmates.
But the story struggles to find a distinctive place on the silver screen. Director Destin Daniel Cretton gets great performances out of his ensemble cast but does little else to set his film apart from the crowded legal field. The comfortable tropes are all present.
There’s the defining event, the rookie mistakes, the research montage, the setback and the “gotcha.” But none are made new. The script rolls out as predictably as a sports movie and, though the subject matter is always compelling, its delivery is never fresh.
This is not to say Cretton gets it wrong, just that he makes no effort to get it uniquely right.
One choice he makes that does work very well is to present the state of Alabama as a character itself. The film is full of examples of the kind of bone-deep racism and institutional prejudices that have long plagued the South. Cretton forces us to look this reality straight in the eye, often. And his genuine concern for the people still hurt by this great American sin is evident throughout. It’s all depicted with a steady, matter of fact hand and we are never forced to confront anything graphic or stylized. Still, I had to constantly remind myself that the action of this film is set in the 1990s, not the 1950s.
Films that refuse to stray from well-worn paths are tough to assess, especially if the message is as critical as the one Just Mercy offers. There is certainly something to be said for letting the lesson speak for itself, without the distraction of the director’s personality. But the courtroom genre needs an update all the same and it deserves at least some measure of cinematic risk-taking.
The good news about Just Mercy is that such an unambitious approach leaves space for the actors to do great work, and they do. Jordan does some of his best, matching every moment with expressive subtlety and reserve. He never oversteps, never pulls the focus away from what is happening to the victims he serves.
One of those victims is Walter Macmillan, portrayed by Jamie Foxx. He easily delivers the film’s standout performance. If Just Mercy does nothing else beyond bringing an essential bit of social history to the fore, it should at least serve as reminder of Foxx’s incredible talent. He’s always been a scene-stealer, but as Walter, Foxx is effortlessly magnetic. His reactions to the various turns of the tide in his story are so spot on, you’ll have a hard time not feeling like it’s all happening to you.
Not every movie has to change the world. It just needs to show it to us.