Bryan Stevenson, an attorney whose exceptional work is dramatized in “Just Mercy,” does not take the easy way out in his professional life, and this film tribute to him and what he’s accomplished also chooses a challenging path.
As the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has dedicated the past 30 years to, among other things, providing legal services to death row inmates and has saved more than 125 unjustly sentenced people from execution in the process.
As directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Just Mercy” focuses on Stevenson’s legal beginnings, on the first seemingly impossible case he took on.
But though it features Michael B. Jordan as the man himself, “Just Mercy” is not simply about bringing a hero to life. (Those looking for a sense of who Stevenson is and the entirety of his career should check out the fine documentary “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality.”)
Rather, the film is at its most convincing when doing something more difficult: allowing us, emotionally, to feel the extent of the crisis Stevenson has made his life’s work.
As co-written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham based on Stevenson’s memoir, “Just Mercy” calmly presents a world where entrenched racism, suffocating intimidation and an all but closed legal system stack the deck, to a terrifying extent, against impoverished defendants of color.
It is not for nothing that one of Stevenson’s most quoted remarks is that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”
A powerful asset in making these points is the film’s impressive group of supporting players (Carmen Cuba was the casting director for the film, as she was for “Queen & Slim”).
Especially effective is the group of actors (Jamie Foxx, Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan, Darrell Britt-Gibson, J. Alphonse Nicholson and O’Shea Jackson, among others) who portray individuals whose lives have been mangled beyond recognition by being trapped in the machine.
Introduced first is Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, a pulpwood worker strongly played by Foxx (who already earned a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for his work), initially almost unrecognizable behind a thick mustache.
Almost as soon as we meet McMillian in 1987, we watch as he’s arrested in Alabama’s Monroe County by Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) on charges of murdering an 18-year-old white woman in Monroeville, which happens to be the hometown of Harper Lee, who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Though there is a brief prologue of Stevenson as a student, he’s introduced more fully as a recent Harvard Law graduate who gives his family pause when he turns down big jobs to go to Montgomery, Ala., and “fight for people who need help the most” — death row inmates.
Though he has the assistance of local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson, who starred in Cretton’s previous “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle”), Stevenson doesn’t initially understand what he’s up against with the local power structure.
A visit to Holman prison and its death row, where he endures a humiliating strip search, and a stonewalling conversation he has with the seemingly affable district attorney, Tommy Champan (a spot-on Rafe Spall), begin a process of education for both Stevenson and the audience.
Though “Just Mercy” spends time with several of the death row inmates Stevenson has represented, most of its focus is on McMillian, and the film truly comes alive when the two men meet. Foxx, throwing himself into the character, explosively expresses a total lack of confidence in, and near contempt for, this young attorney.
“What you going to do different?” he all but sneers after listing the failures of the lawyers who represented him in the past. “All they going to do is eat you alive and spit you out.”
McMillian, as it turns out, is not the first person to underestimate Stevenson’s grit, ferocious perseverance and passion for justice. Not one for grandstanding, he simply refuses to be discouraged or even consider backing down.
Stevenson eventually realizes that all roads in the McMillian case lead to Ralph Myers, a white career criminal whose questionable testimony was valued more by the jury than the numerous African American alibi witnesses the defense produced.
Myers is played with compelling eccentricity by Tim Blake Nelson, who recently starred for the Coen brothers as the very different Buster Scruggs. Myers’ shifty, twitchy, damaged personality holds us completely, and his interactions with Stevenson provide some of the film’s high points.
Another strength of “Just Mercy” is its refusal to tiptoe around what it took to make McMillian the first man ever freed from Alabama’s death row — a long, tortuous and difficult process despite compelling evidence of his innocence.
The film portrays the ferocious resistance of some people to the possibility that this man had nothing to do with the crime. And that’s when “Just Mercy” is at its best.
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Playing: Opens Dec. 25 at AMC Century City, Arclight Hollywood