Michael B. Jordan plays legal crusader Bryan Stevenson in Destin Daniel Cretton's retelling of one of his most infuriating and important cases.
Bryan Stevenson may not be known around the world, but in the U.S. he has become something of a legal legend - particularly since last year's release of an HBO documentary exploring his efforts to overturn miscarriages of justice that placed African-Americans on death row due to the institutional racism that permeates the local justice system.
Hot on its heels comes director Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy, a dramatic portrayal of one of his key, and most frustrating cases, starring Michael B. Jordan as Harvard educated lawyer Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as his client Walter 'Johnny D' McMillian, a man sentenced to death who is adamant he's been wrongfully accused of killing a young white woman.
Adding pathos is the fact that the crime occurred in Monroeville, Alabama - the town made famous by Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, with McMillian's case, dating from 1986, continuing a toxic thread of injustice as old as America itself.
Initially, McMillian is suspicious of Stevenson, seeing another do-gooding lawyer interested in burnishing his credentials by taking on his case.
A case it's quickly clear is hopeless not because he committed the crime, but because of the thinness of the evidence.
Monroeville's authorities and residents are unwilling to reopen an old wound and admit racism may be sending an innocent man to his death.
As ever, Jordan is exceptional as Stevenson, depicting him as a thoughtful and principled figure who none-the-less has crises of confidence when he and his assistant Eva (Brie Larson) are banging their head against a brick wall by trying to get police officers, prosecutors, and potential witnesses to go on the record.
All have some idea that the original evidence, based on another criminal's dubious confession, is dodgy, but also that repudiating will lead to deeper, darker questions about American society these good old boys aren't necessarily willing to ask.
It's an unflashy performance, without many of the courtroom pyrotechnics one sometimes sees in similar tales of injustice, but one with tender moments, such as in Stevenson's interactions with McMillian and his family.
Foxx, an excellent actor whose talents have largely been wasted in sub-standard action fare in recent years, also gives an intriguing performance as McMillian - carefully portraying him as flawed, and not a traditional wronged hero, but rather a man who just wants to get back home.
However, despite its noble subject matter and a strong supporting cast including Rob Morgan, Rafe Spall, and O'Shea Jackson, Jr., the film never quite catches fire, and it's easy to see why it's been overlooked at the Oscars, despite its worthy subject matter.
Director Cretton, who wowed with his 2013 indie drama Short Term 12, takes a relatively perfunctory approach to the material, with the audience made to feel like we're being walked through an important story rather than living it.
Unlike in the best legal dramas, which possess a sense of jeopardy and mystery, even those who do not know the true story on which this is based can see very early on that not only is McMillian innocent, but glaringly so.
On-screen it begs for an approach that introduces the fear its characters experienced in real-time when fighting a seemingly lost cause.
For that reason, it doesn't move or stoke the anger, although Jordan and Foxx's performances do elevate matters, and Stevenson's articulacy and (still ongoing) quest to end injustice still makes for an emotional, speech-filled climax.
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