Just Mercy review: A worthy but powerful legal drama buoyed by strong performances
If our Netflix habits over the past couple of years are anything to go by, we bloody love a courtroom procedural. The People v. OJ Simpson; When They See Us; Making a Murderer – the list goes on.
Basically, if you get your kicks from someone digging out a vital piece of paper from a dusty archive or busting out a surprise witness at the eleventh hour, Just Mercy is for you.
Based on his memoir, it follows young civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he moves to Alabama in the late 1980s with a mission to defend wrongly-convicted, mostly black men who have found themselves on death row.
It focuses on the case of Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who has been sentenced to death for the murder of an 18-year-old girl despite evidence proving his innocence. The irony that this is taking place in the town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, the most prominent American novel on the topic of racial inequality, is not lost.
Stories like this often follow a rather predictable, linear path, but Just Mercy provides enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. It can be a little earnest at times – courtroom dramas don’t really work without at least a bit of outrage at the inherent corruption of the criminal justice system – but nuanced performances provide a solid foundation for the righteous indignation.
Jordan packs an emotional punch in his portrayal of Stevenson, proving he can deliver outside of shirtless action roles, while Tim Blake Nelson puts in a stand-out performance as the convicted criminal who holds the key to McMillian’s release. Brie Larson and Rafe Spall also make the most of supporting roles as Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s dogged assistant, and Tommy Chapman, the conservative district attorney who stands in his way.
The real-life Stevenson has helped to free more than 100 inmates facing unjust convictions. Although Just Mercy is a little long at more than two hours – it may have been better told as a miniseries – and takes a while to get going, it’s worth persevering with for the heartfelt portrayal of this remarkable man.