PLOT A young black lawyer in Alabama fights to free a wrongly convicted man.
CAST Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
RATED PG-13 (adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE A compelling legal drama with fine performances from Jordan and Foxx.
Driving through Alabama, the young attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) passes a billboard trumpeting Monroe County as "The Home of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'" Stevenson is black but something of an Atticus Finch himself; he's here to investigate the case of another black man, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), sentenced to death for allegedly killing a white woman. The parallel might be too obvious if not for the fact that "Just Mercy" is based on a true story.
After that brief description, you can be forgiven for thinking "Just Mercy" sounds like a movie you’ve seen before. There have been similar releases this past year alone, including "Brian Banks," about a black man wrongfully convicted of rape, and "Clemency," about a warden questioning her commitment to the death penalty. (Both featured Aldis Hodge in the prisoner role.) What distinguishes "Just Mercy" are the excellent performances from Jordan and Foxx, and an overall sensitive touch from writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (working from Stevenson's bestselling book).
"Just Mercy" takes place mostly in the early 1990s but, as the Harper Lee reference suggests, the time might easily be the 1930s. Stevenson is a Sidney Poitier-like figure, the black Northerner in a white Southern town, and Jordan plays him with both steely dignity and a justifiable case of the jitters. It isn't long before Stevenson meets the Rod Steiger-esque Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) — he put McMillian on death row even before the trial — and a young but intractable district attorney, Tom Chapman (a very good Rafe Spall). Their resistance to glaring new evidence in the case seems somehow more monstrous than the phoned-in bomb-threat to the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson's not-for-profit organization. (Brie Larson, of Cretton's acclaimed "Short Term 12," briefly plays the real-life staffer Eva Ansley.)
The film's most moving scenes unfold within the William C. Holman prison, where McMillian (Foxx is impressively understated in a role that could have tipped into histrionics) clings to hope with two other convicts: Anthony Ray Hinton (O'Shea Jackon Jr.), wrongfully convicted of two murders, and Herbert Richardson (a riveting Rob Morgan), who killed a girl in a bombing. They're a moral test case, in microcosm, for the death penalty: A guilty man awaiting execution along with the innocents.
"Just Mercy" effectively presents the South — and perhaps America — as a place clinging to its racist past while also trying to deny it. After promising to do nothing to help McMillian, Chapman suggests that Stevenson visit the county's "Mockingbird" exhibit. He notes proudly: "It's one of the great Civil Rights landmarks of the South."
Crusading lawyers have long been a mainstay of the movies, no doubt because their righteous causes and uphill battles make for such gripping drama. Here are four examples:
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962) Harper Lee's classic novel of the segregated South is cited several times in "Just Mercy," though many Americans will be more familiar with Robert Mulligan's film adaptation. Gregory Peck won the Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends a black man (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white girl.
PHILADELPHIA (1993) A homophobic lawyer (Denzel Washington) takes up a discrimination case on behalf of a gay man (Tom Hanks) who has been diagnosed with AIDS. Though not without controversy, the film earned widespread praise for dealing directly with a taboo subject; Hanks won the Oscar for his performance.
ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000) Julia Roberts won the Oscar for portraying the title character, a real-life legal clerk for attorney Ed Masry (Albert Finney) who helped build a case against the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for allegedly contaminating a town's drinking water. The company settled for a whopping $333 million.
MIRACLE ON 34TH ST. (1947) Somewhat forgotten in the annals of movie lawyers is Fred Gailey (John Payne), who takes on one of the most hopeless cases of all: Proving that a seemingly daft fellow named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwynn) is actually Santa Claus. Credit for the legal logic goes to writer-director George Seaton. — RAFER GUZMAN