Real-life hero lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and an advocate for death row inmates and others unfairly incarcerated, comes to life on the big screen in “Just Mercy.” Adapted from Stevenson’s memoir of the same title, it is a depiction of one of the pivotal cases he took on at the onset of his legal career. When Stevenson, who is from Philadelphia, went to Harvard Law School on a scholarship, he hadn’t planned to relocate to Alabama afterwards, let alone work on death row cases. Like many of his classmates, he assumed a lucrative profession in corporate law lay before him, but fate had other plans. After a summer internship in the late 80s of working Civil Rights cases and meeting several death row inmates who were victims of abject racism and unfairly incarcerated, bonds were made and an activist was born. Stevenson did a U-turn back to the deep south upon graduation to the fear and disappointment of his mother. It was almost just as hard to develop a law firm dedicated to this cause as it was taking on cases of this kind. To say it was an uphill battle is an understatement.
It is at this point of Stevenson’s life and legal practice that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton begins the adaptation. He smartly puts acclaimed actor Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) in the lead role of Civil Rights attorney, Stevenson. Not surprising, Stevenson’s Harvard degree, professional persona and attire, and good intentions couldn’t shield himself from being a victim of racism as well as anyone he represented. Early on in his arrival in Alabama, he meets Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) a young white wife and mother who is dedicated to Stevenson’s cause. She and her husband welcome him into their home while he settles in. After helping him set up the office and law practice, she naturally falls into the role of legal assistant, even at the risk of her family’s safety. One of their first cases is appealing the conviction of Walter McMillian (Jamie Fox) who is wrongfully convicted of killing a white young woman despite an avalanche of evidence proving his innocence. The audience is ushered into and through a true human story and legal drama.
Jordan portrays Stevenson appropriately as a naive, earnest and quiet young attorney. Much of his performance is in being restraint, communicating more in his demeanor and expressions than words or outrage. By contrast, Ansley in real life and in the hands of Larson, is tough and brash. It’s a good role for Larson and likable and impressive performance. Although Fox is in a supporting role and surrounded by a stellar cast, he as Walter is the standout performance. His portrayal is a deeply moving combination of anger and fear, mixed with a bit of optimism as he begins to trust Stevenson and hangs on to hope. Playing the part with soul and conviction, it is Fox’s best performance since “Ray.”
Unlike the movie, Stevenson’s memoir is set up as vignettes of numerous cases he took on at the same time as Walter’s and after. The adaptation narrows the focus to just the one case. For fans of the book that may come as a surprise and/or disappointment, but it makes sense within the movies’ time limitations. Also, if there was just one of Stevenson’s laudable cases to portray, this is the best choice. It ended up being his most high profile, changing trajectory of his practice, and launching the EJI. Beyond that, there is nothing else for followers of Stevenson or fans of the book to bemoan because "Just Mercy” the movie is solidly good adaptation and a compelling drama. It will bring a tear to your eye, but more importantly, shine a light on an honorable man, admirable causes and a little-known case.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Fox, Brie Larson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 136 min.
1917 - This is by far the best war movie ever made and absolutely be experienced on the big screen! How such a large movie can be so intimate is testament to the superb writing and cinematography that makes "1917" an incredible feat of filmmaking. It is as much a thriller as it is a war movie or period film, in large part due to how it was shot/edited in one take and in real time. Sometimes creative techniques and technology elevate a movie to something very special. Such is the case here, with the film being edited as if in one continuous shot. Plus, we all need an occasional good hard look at the atrocities and realities of war.
Parasite - Exquisitely shot, great ensemble cast, off the charts creative, stunning, disturbing and poignant. In a word … MASTERPIECE!
Les Miserables- Strap in and get ready for a wild ride from the slums of Paris, with a heavy dose of social injustice and blatant racism. This is what happens when burnt out bad cops are left to their own devices and in urban neighborhoods unfortunately riddled with crime. “Les Miserables” is fantastic entry into American audiences for relatively newish director, Ladj Ly.
Joker - Wow, this is as dark, grim and violent (at end) as it gets, but undeniably fantastic. The Joker is an excellent origin story, of the famed villain from "Batman," with a significant side of social commentary. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is outstanding and director Todd Phillips' chronicling of the making of a killer is haunting, captivating and actually poetic. No wonder he's been said to be a lock for all the awards from the day the movie released.
Just Mercy - I loved the book the movie is based on, and appreciate the film adaptation (although pretty different, so please do read the book!) Real-life hero lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who advocates for death row inmates and others unfairly incarcerated, comes to life on the big screen with this depiction of his career and one of the pivotal cases he took on and won. Jamie Fox should get an Oscar nod for this excellent supporting role performance.
Us - This may not quite be the cinematic revelation “Get Out” was when it came out two years earlier, but as a follow-up, Jordan Peele does not disappoint. There is a wonderful genre mix of Twighlight Zone eeriness and uncertainty, with Hitchcock level cinematography and story structure.
Knock Down the House- I loved re-wathching and re-living AOC’s 2018 path to victory, along with several other agents of change who didn’t quite make it but gave it a great try. It gives hope for the 2020 election … and we all need a bit of hope.
The Great Hack- Anybody who has a computer or engages in social media of any kind (in other words, everybody), should watch this informative and striking documentary about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and key persons impacted by it.
1917 - Sometimes creative techniques and technology elevate a movie to something very special. Such is the case here, with the film being edited as if in one continuous shot. Plus, we all need an occasional good hard look at the atrocities and realities of war.
Pain and Glory- Pedro Almadovar directs Antonio Banderas in the best role/performance of his career as a deeply personal send up to Almadovar’s career.
Booksmart- Clever, outrageous and wickedly funny. It’s the female version of “Super Bad,” but better. Kudos to actress-turned-director, Oliva Wilde!
- HONORABLE MENTION -
The Report - Can we say waterboarding, even suspected terrorists, is immoral and illegal?!! Yes, America! What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good political thriller, and when you add reality/based on actual events, even better!
Yesterday - I didn’t think anything could make me appreciate the Beatle’s anthology more than I always have, but this film did just that. Along the way, I was wildly entertained by this wholly unique script of a musician who, through a freak event, is the only one in the world that knows the Beatles’ songs and struggles with the ethics of taking advantage of that.