It’s almost predictable that the true story of Bryan Stevenson should become a movie.
Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, dedicated to helping poor defendants on death row, some of whom have been innocent and many of whom had poor legal representation.
People should know his story, and his work, when you consider that for every nine people who are executed, one death-row inmate is proven innocent, as the film indicates.
It’s unfortunate that the new movie “Just Mercy” is as predictable as it is in almost every way, from its social justice message to its courtroom drama to its racist cops in the South.
That doesn’t make the story one you shouldn’t learn more about, and perhaps its cast of stars will get you into a theater to see a movie that you have definitely seen before.
To lead off with, as a young black man completing his law degree at Harvard and choosing to go to Alabama to defend the poor and death-row convicts who can’t afford decent representation, who else would you want in that role besides the handsome, forceful Michael B. Jordan (“Black Panther”)?
Or in the smaller role of his activist assistant, how about Oscar winner Brie Larson? Or Oscar winner Jamie Foxx playing the death-row inmate who has given up hope until Stevenson comes to his defense?
This is some great casting that unfortunately does not add up to a great movie because each of them is portrayed not only as heroes, but also as perfect.
They are depicted not only as having common sense, but also as not understanding how others can’t see how people are being wronged.
These characters have zero flaws and no apparent life outside of their “crusade for justice,” so they are a little boring.
This makes “Just Mercy” a flawed, obvious movie that’s not as powerful or thought-provoking as it should have been.
But it’s not all bad, and Jordan is so likeable that it’s not hard to watch this young man in snappy suits defend the wrongly condemned and those in poverty, along with local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson).
A note: More than 30 years later, Stevenson has been able to gain freedom or at least some form of life-saving relief for more than 140 sentenced to death. The film’s focus is on one of his earliest cases.
It’s that of Walter McMillian (Foxx), who was sentenced to death in 1987 for an 18-year-old Alabama woman’s murder — despite evidence clearly proving his innocence and the star witness being an inmate with a reason to lie.
Foxx brings great presence to his completely predictable character, but even better is Tulsa’s Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers, the man who bears false witness in the case.
As a poor Alabaman himself, with burn scars slashing his neck, a drooping lip that affects his drawl and a blinking eyes/twitch combo, Nelson’s inmate with a sweet tooth feels like one of the film’s most real people.
His “creepy character” actually engenders a sympathetic response beyond that of the film’s so-called “good people.”
What we mostly get is McMillian’s case being a “railroad job” that we’ve all seen portrayed before.
The kind with his attorney working long hours and reading papers and law books, all the while knowing the odds are stacked against him.
The kind with cops who are undeniable racists who say they aren’t but then leer/smirk at you.
The kind with our hero being pulled over by police late one night for harassment purposes, and the kind with courtroom “big moments” teed up as expected.
Where “Just Mercy” offers something different is when it takes us to death row, and especially when it portrays the final day for one death-row inmate, in this case a veteran with PTSD who killed a woman.
It delivers an authentic look at what those final hours leading up to an execution look like.
The movie takes place in Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, as well as it being a place where ships landed to unload slaves in the distant past.
While mentioned in passing, I can’t help but think that these elements could have been incorporated into the narrative in a more powerful manner.
“Just Mercy” is a valuable lesson told in a just-OK way.
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
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