As courtroom dramas go, “Just Mercy” (WB) could have gone way over the top, especially given the subject matter.
Instead, director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton delivers a controlled and subtly moving movie that makes its points without bombarding us. Sure, “Just Mercy” is still a Hollywood movie, with big-name actors in the cast, but its power is in its restraint.
“Just Mercy” opens in 1987 in Monroe County, Alabama, in Monroeville, the same small southern town where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” (another courtroom drama). Independent logger Walter is arrested for the murder of an 18-year-old woman in a dry cleaner’s store. A year later, after his conviction for the murder, a judge overrides his life sentence and sentences him to death.
Idealistic Harvard law school student Bryan (an admirably restrained Michael B. Jordan) is doing an internship in rural Georgia and is shocked by the mistreatment of an inmate. Two years later, with law degree in hand, he leaves his parents’ home in Delaware for Alabama, where he plans to start a practice providing legal services to people who need help, including murderers on death row. He will be assisted in his work by Eva (Oscar-winner Brie Larson working with Cretton for the third time).
Bryan meets with clients at a correctional facility and two cases, especially that of Walter’s, interest him.
Walter doesn’t want Bryan’s help, doesn’t see the point since there have been zero people freed from death row in Alabama. But Bryan is persistent. He researches Walter’s case and doesn’t think Walter is guilty. Everything hinges on an unreliable witness named Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).
Unfortunately, Bryan is unprepared the obstacles in his way, including Tommy (Rafe Spall), the district attorney, and intolerant redneck Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding). But, as Bryan puts it, he doesn’t care about pissing people off, he wants to achieve justice.
He meets with Walter’s wife Minnie (Karan Kendrick), and their kids, as well as several neighbors, all of whom were with Walter the morning of the crime, at the exact time it was committed. The theory is that a few months before the murder, Walter got caught having an affair with a white woman, and the townsfolk turned on him and were looking for a way to punish him.
After reassuring them that they will not be charged legal fees, Bryan says he thinks he can build a case strong enough to bring Walter home. Soon, people are coming forward with important details. Additionally, Bryan arranges to meet with Myers and discovers that there is something shady about his testimony against Bryan. He just needs to convince him to come forward so that Walter can get a new and fair trial.
Even though the events of “Just Mercy” take place some 30 or so years ago, much of it still relevant today. From the insidious racism still practiced in this country to the power of television (in this case a story on “60 Minutes”) to bring about change.
The way the trial, in Bryan’s words, is a “test of whether we’re going to be governed by fear and anger or by the rule of law”, is especially meaningful in Trumpworld. Uplifting and well-intentioned, all the way to the final scene, in which Bryan and Walter testify at a 1993 U.S. Senate Hearing on the Death Penalty.