Mercy is the motif. Here's a contemporary take on the need for it to show the way. It's not an easy way.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12)
Screenplay: Cretton, Andrew Lanham (The Kid) from book by Bryan Stevenson
Cast: Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Brie Larson (Room), Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained)
Runtime: 2h 16m
By: John DeSando
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is the model of perseverance as he defends in the late ‘80’s Walter McMillian, a black man in Alabama (To Kill a Mockingbird’s Monroeville, ironic enough) over corrupt murder charges. Although the arc of defense is usually the same in reality as well as this drama, Just Mercy, each incident will hit fair-minded audiences in the gut.
Director Dustin Daniel Cretton keeps the pace of Bryan’s investigation going, from the early days as a new Harvard-trained lawyer to the journey to the Alabama Supreme Court and back. During that time the audience gets a stark reminder that standing up against bigotry and corruption—Alabama cops do not come off like justice-driven officers—as Stevenson does is not for the weak, but definitely for those who seek justice, especially for underserved minorities.
Although Walter having been unjustly convicted is established early on, it’s the undoing of that conviction (Walter is awaiting his execution date) that provides suspense, with multiple incidents of denial in the court system. Meanwhile Stevenson (he wrote the account on which the film is based) gives a few too many Hollywood-like speeches about the prejudice that allows an innocent man to lose part or all of his life fighting a system that caters to the wealthy and the white.
The strength of this predictable drama (unavoidable given the story is based on a real drama) that is replayed in courtrooms daily, and it seems in the South more often than normal, is the depiction of helplessness for the unjustly convicted and the efficacy of tenaciousness joined to truth. The corrosion of justice and the heroism of humane people is on display and a reminder that never giving up is the antidote to hopelessness.
Hope is the dominant motif of Just Mercy, and it’s just and merciful.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com