Chicago International Film Festival 2019: Just Mercy

Not much hype and anticipation have yet been built up for Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, based on the real-life account of lawyer, activist, and writer Bryan Stevenson’s autobiography Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2015). Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and since then only being played at a few more festivals, few people have actually had the chance to see it. Warner Bros. has unfortunately slotted it for the often fatal Christmas Day limited release and January wide release, which we have seen prove to be a hurdle too tough for movies with Oscar aspirations to overcome in recent years with examples like Phantom Thread (2017) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). Just Mercy is the type of movie that generally does very well with the Academy. It features famous and likable movie stars we love in meaty roles, a non-fiction account of civil rights injustice that remains prescient today, and above all, when the credits roll, feelings of accomplishment and perseverance permeate the screen. Of course, these characteristics all sound heavily clichéd and even eye-roll inducing at this point. Especially after Green Book‘s overbearing presence last year, just the idea of this movie may make you cringe. Fortunately, Just Mercy is not that movie. Just Mercy delivers on its premise in all the best ways, appearing to be “Oscar bait” because yes, it is Oscar-worthy.

Just Mercy. Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton.

Bryan Stevenson was a Harvard law school graduate who moved to Alabama with the intention of helping inmates on death row. Played by Michael B. Jordan, we see this man’s conviction in its rawest form. Jordan, who has had a fairly impressive last five years since his breakout in Fruitvale Station (2013), brings the perfect amount of star-power to this role while also fleshing it out with humbled dedication. In some ways, it is the type of performance we have been waiting for with Jordan, who had fallen into a string of franchise movies like the Creed movies and Black Panther (2018). Here, we see him in a role where he is able to show off his range as an actor and the promise of his career is finally fully realized. The film rides on his performance at its center and Michael B. Jordan delivers.

Further, Jaime Foxx delivers the most emotionally charged performance we have seen from him in years. This may be termed as somewhat as a comeback for him and that is probably fair. Playing the wrongfully convicted inmate on death row that Stevenson gravitates to and becomes immensely invested in, Foxx imbues the character with the look of a man who has been beaten down by the system over an extended period of time. The audience immediately has empathy for his character and becomes enamored with him, his case, and his family in much the same way that Jordan’s character does. The film does an excellent job of moving at a sharp clip so the story never becomes tired. For a courtroom drama based on a true story, the pacing is riveting.

Filling out the main cast of stars are Brie Larson and Tim Blake Nelson, who have fairly small roles but do a lot to enhance the story whenever they appear on-screen. Tim Blake Nelson is particularly exceptional, going through something of a transformation to convey his character’s equally troubled history with Foxx’s, playing a lower-class white man who has also seen himself become a product of the unjust social hierarchy in rural Alabama. His few scenes are some of the best and most charged in the film, providing further insight into the injustice encapsulating this part of the country. During the Q&A after the film, he spoke eloquently about this aspect of the film as well as shedding light on his process for getting into the character, studying hours of film on the broken man himself, Ralph Myers. Brie Larson also asserts herself with her most suitable and determined work since Room (2015).

Just Mercy. Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton.

The final star of this film is of course director Destin Daniel Cretton, comprehends the value of this type of film and fills it with just the right amount of cinematic flair. Together with director of photography Brett Pawlak, they let the actors do the bulk of the work here, letting the camera rest on them as they all deliver truly inspired performances and fill the screen with beauty all their own. Not to appear “too cinematic,” they’ve utilized a startling amount of close-up shots, very close in fact, so close you can see individual pores and hairs on the actors’ faces. This approach succeeds in pulling the audience right into these characters, their emotions, and their convictions. There are more than a few scenes where we see one of these characters overcome with emotion and it elicits strong reactions from the audience.

Just Mercy is a movie we can all get behind. It features actors we love in roles that bring out the best in them, it utilizes sound direction to convey the story and its characters to the audience in a way that both heightens the narrative and doesn’t overpower it, and most importantly, it features a story that is prevalent today. The film is fundamentally a feel-good story and it is sure to be a favorite for audiences this holiday season. Unlike last year’s Green Book, which featured a formula grounded in the 1980s and sought specifically to make older white audiences feel better about the state of racial politics in ways that felt insincere, Just Mercy, while having similar goals, achieves them by presenting its author’s story plainly; it doesn’t pull punches and in turn its endpoint feels incredibly well-earned. This isn’t 2019’s Green Book, but rather can be more likened to Spotlight (2015), a recent true story that remains prevalent in our society today, featuring a stellar screenplay and movie stars falling into their juicy roles. With that in mind, it is easy to see Just Mercy‘s path to success at the Oscar’s. Of course, that is a total crapshoot with a slew of factors beyond its control. Just Mercy deserves any praise that will come its way.


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