The Delaware-born, Harvard-educated lawyer (B. Jordan) doesn’t get a hero’s welcome when he gets to Monroeville, Alabama, despite its apparent ownership of the legacy of To Kill A Mockingbird, which is based there. (Stevenson’s race doesn’t help, either…) Upon his acrimonious arrival in the town, Stevenson alongside Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) meets with Johnny D (Jamie Foxx), the convicted killer of an 18-year-old local girl. Stevenson’s legal knowhow – a seeming rarity in a backwards place – leads him to the conclusion that there are severe challenges to the legal integrity of Johnny D’s conviction – and death sentence.
But the South is the South, and the district attorney – played well by Rafe Spall, although he isn’t given much to do – stands in the way of overturning a ruling that returned peace to a timid town. Also on the map is Tim Blake Nelson’s Ralph Myers, a man convicted for another crime who proved the key witness in the trial that brought down Johnny D. Nelson is perhaps the most talented character actor in America, and is doing stellar work as the crazed criminal and unlikely friend of Stevenson.
Unfortunately the film scuppers its early momentum and grows only into something of a TV legal drama, with court case after court case helping explain the overcooked runtime of 156 minutes. Jordan’s Stevenson in the meantime is a bit too straightforward, although perhaps accurate to a genuine hero of the American justice system. Still, truth and movies aren’t the same.
Nonetheless effective supporting performances, such as that from O’Shea Jackson Jr as a fellow death row inmate, offer a deeply affecting element to Just Mercy, and save it from its apparent fate of procedural boredom. Director Destin Daniel Cretton could occasionally be more inventive, although one particularly moving sequence is brilliantly done.
Just Mercy could do more to explore the interesting characters it puts in front of us. But the story itself is compelling enough to carry it, and Foxx puts in a performance not far from a career highlight that will – and should – stay long in the memory.