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TIFF 2019 Review: Just Mercy

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A startling statistic comes across the screen at the end of Just Mercy – that for every nine people executed on death row, one of them is exonerated.   It’s a horrifying amount of error, and highlights the injustice that is present in the judicial system.  That injustice is at the root of the true story that director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) aims to tell.

Newly graduated from Harvard Law School, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) drives his car away from his family and towards the state of Alabama.  Having done an internship during his schooling with people on death row he decides that this is the place where he can help people most.  With the assistance of a local woman, Eva (Brie Larson), he sets out on a journey that eventually has him setting up the Equal Justice Initiative – but first he starts by helping a few clients on death row that didn’t have representation or were poorly represented.

One of these clients is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).  McMillian was arrested for the murder of a white woman and put on death row before his trial had even been completed.  Other lawyers came in with long lists of promises but ended up stripping his family of their money instead.  But despite Walter’s scepticism, Bryan and Eva work tirelessly to help him and others on death row all in a racially charged south, where authorities seem to care more about having a man behind bars and less about whether it’s the right one.

Both Foxx and Jordan stand out here with heavily emotionally charged scenes throughout.  Jordan may be doing his best work to date.  However, it’s the others in the supporting cast which give the most emotional impact.  This includes Rob Morgan as an inmate suffering from PTSD and Tim Blake Nelson, a criminal that implicates McMillian in the murder.

Just Mercy doesn’t introduce anything new artistically, in fact, it is even a little long in the courtroom drama department, but it tells the story it was meant to tell, and it does it well.  Cretton does a good job balancing the drama with the message he’s trying to drive home. There is plenty of emotional impact, especially in a scene depicting an electrocution.  Not a dry eye in the house.

Giving attention such an important subject is part of the solution.  You’ll leave feeling the need to do something, which is the main aim here.  In a film where the three main stars have all been in superhero movies, you never feel if there is anyone other than one superhero here, and that’s the real-life Bryan Stevenson.

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