(Caution: light spoilers.)
By Corey Runkel →
Just Mercy’s most powerful scenes concern three different people condemned to death, all legally represented by Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan). These scenes punctuate the film, as we witness Stevenson’s growth from timid law student to successful advocate for those on death row. The strengths of Just Mercy—the eponymous memoir by Stevenson—lie in its plot and the range of lives contained within. But while the movie safely navigates the politics of portraying incarceration and gross injustice, it runs aground by bashing its viewership over the head by over-telling a story well shown.
We see, first, the timid intern some 800-miles south of Harvard to meet a man his own age on death row. We see, then, the execution of Herb Richardson, a veteran who developed PTSD during Vietnam and proceeded to detonate a bomb on a lover’s porch. Finally, we see Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) run the gauntlet of police and legal implements to win freedom for a crime he did not commit, that canonic Southern Sin of murdering a white woman whilst Black. This story dominates Just Mercy, and exposes features of the legal system in Monroeville, AL (the literary and extra-literary site of To Kill a Mockingbird) that the average viewer would not believe existed in the 1980s.
Jordan cracks the ‘rational’ suspicions of the first two inmates, seeming both cool-headed and eager. He is at his best showing off these gifts, gifts the real Bryan Stevenson possesses, of blind understanding and unflappability. The stories of these men evoke grief and frustration without the aid of embellishment, and Just Mercy refrains admirably in their cases. And it is mostly free from fetish, a necessity that prisoner-centric films still neglect. With Walter McMillan, however, Jordan plays somewhat different.
For Walter McMillan, Stephenson transforms into the Atticus Finch archetype he jokes about. I had hoped for a courtroom monologue-free drama—true to life—but Just Mercy just could not resist. Part of this discrepancy is a defect of the book-film transubstantiation: the book budgets roughly 10% of its pages to legal history and explaining the appeal process for Alabama death row inmates. Instead of devising some snappy montage (à la Michael Lewis film adaptations) explaining Alabama’s criminal processing and social statics showcasing racial disparities, Just Mercy, the movie, uses Jordan and legal assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) as mouthpieces. What results are dialogues where both characters tell the other what they clearly already know. Just Mercy has not caught the trend of making its viewers think, spoon-feeding plot and context at its own expense.
Moreover, Jordan says what doesn’t need to be said. When he visits McMillan’s family, extended family, and neighbors, it’s clear that Bryan Stevenson cares, that he goes beyond to help this man and his family, that he does not indict the men he sees (legally or illegally) on death row. Jordan uses his tremendously expressive face—clenched jaws and furrowed brows, or his 500-watt smile—to summon indignation or pleasure. He could very well have been the right actor for this movie, but his script sounds trite, due to his own delivery and adjustments, or to an overzealous writer/producer.
Honestly, I think much of Just Mercy’s shortcomings fall on director Destin Daniel Cretton, though surely the suits at Warner Bros. pushed the platitudes whenever possible. I do not mind adaptations heightening the drama of a book, but they must pass a few criteria:
- Major plot events represented faithfully: Here, the movie receives close to full marks. The first meeting on death row, execution, and first trial are close to perfect, but the release of Walter McMillan sees Stevenson lecturing the courtroom before judgment is passed. This is stupid as well as melodramatic; part of the book’s brilliance is its emphasis on how pedestrian structural racism and indigent defense is in the legal system.
Adding to this mis-adaption is the portrayal of Monroeville’s prosecutor. Prosecutors have jobs, they have staffs, and they have electorates. These facts make their jobs less about justice than legal statistics and relationships with the police department. In the final 16 minutes, the prosecutor somehow turns from the patronizing careerist of the first two hours to sheepish moral man in full realization of his mistake. In reality, the state’s case was untenable. There was no uplifting realization by the white prosecutor that justice had not been served.
- The adapted work’s environment communicated: This component is Just Mercy’s worst. The book leadens Stevenson’s journey with the twin histories of criminal prosecution and racism in America. As I mentioned before, the book resorts to chunky dialogue to explain basic facts of prosecution, but with no reference to the wider scope of these facts, no sense that these convictions happen in every jurisdiction in the United States.
- Embellishments add to the message: I’m of two minds here. Jordan’s sermonizing belies Stevenson’s cool-headed determination. He was not Thurgood Marshall in the courtroom. But the adjustments to Walter McMillan’s incarceration were, at times, nice substitutes. Never in the book does Walter engage in a single aggressive or even energetic act. Here we see him thrashing against the human restraints that envelop him. The sense of rage, devoid in the book, is understandable.
Just Mercy turns a book powerful for its facticality into something expected and over-determined. No one who reads the facts of this case would have the need to decipher, yet the all-too-familiar scenes of excessive force and righteousness of Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson are so obviously coded as to rob any viewers of their right to interpretation. The movie wins when getting out of its own way, offering the un-cinematic particularities (a scratchy record full of dread just before the electric chair) and plain humanity (Stevenson joking with his first client, about what he won’t say) of, you know, real humans. It is a poignant story of what it means for anyone with a modicum of power to remember the wrongs that have already happened instead of trying to inscribe their own story ignorant of what has come before. But check out the book instead from your local library.