In the Heat of the Night is one of the best movies ever made about race in America. I thought of it several times while watching Just Mercy. Both are set in the South, and both provide insightful depictions of how ingrained racism can become in the culture, to the point where people stare it straight in the eye and don't even realize what they're seeing. Only time will tell if Destin Daniel Cretton's legal drama becomes the all-time classic that Norman Jewison's 1967 police procedural is. It's certainly a compelling work that offers plenty to think about.
In this true story, Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic young lawyer who, with some grant money he earned, opens up a small office in Alabama. Brie Larson is Eva Ansley, the manager who helps him handle day-to-day affairs. Bryan has an interest in death row cases, particularly that of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx). Walter is sentenced to death for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl, despite glaringly obvious flaws in the case, including the fact that the sole testimony against him came from a criminal, Ralph Myers (the superb Tim Blake Nelson), with plenty of motivation to lie.
Taking on Walter's case means first convincing the man to allow it. Walter has been burned by lawyers before, and he knows the deck is stacked against him. Once Bryan earns his trust, the work starts. That proves difficult, because even though Walter's innocence is pretty clear-cut, getting the proper officials to accept it – or even look at it -- is virtually impossible.
Just Mercy hits on something uncomfortable yet true about racial perceptions in many parts of the country. The locals in this story don't necessarily care about justice, they only care about perceived justice. A white girl is dead, a black man's in prison for it, so case closed. Bryan repeatedly encounters people who don't care about facts or evidence. They just want to know that someone is paying for the crime. Anything that might threaten that sense of false closure is greeted with hostility. Although the film takes place in Alabama in the late '80s and early '90s, such attitudes persist today. It's a form of institutional racism, handed down across generations, that implicitly believes it doesn't matter whether an African-American is guilty of a particular crime because they're probably guilty of something.
Part of the film's drama comes from Bryan facing that sort of racist mindset again and again. He sees it directed at himself, too. As a black man, his education and profession don't matter to a lot of the town's citizens. They mistrust him simply because of the color of his skin. That they aren't wearing white robes or burning crosses is irrelevant; these are folks who cling to deeply racist ideology, then hide behind the excuses of “mistrusting outsiders” or “caring about the victim, not the culprit.”
The movie's best scenes often take place between Walter and his fellow death row inmates. They offer one another support as they share their fear of being walked the last mile to the room where they'll be executed. Just Mercy has a subplot involving one of Walter's friends, Herbert (Rob Morgan), a traumatized vet who acknowledges guilt, but also probably would not have been sentenced to death had he received a more competent defense. The manner in which this plays out, as Bryan tries to help him, drives home one of the central themes of Just Mercy: that economically-disadvantaged black men are disproportionately executed because they're less likely to receive quality representation.
Every performance in the movie is spot-on. Michael B. Jordan once again proves why he is one of our brightest, most exciting young actors. He sidesteps every noble do-gooder cliché to make Bryan someone motivated, in part, by a sense of anger at the unjust system. Jamie Foxx, meanwhile, breaks your heart as Walter. One of the character's most significant traits is that he knows the system is stacked against him, so he resists Bryan's attempts to instill hope. Foxx makes you feel how the inability to accept another soul-crushing legal disappointment and a keen understanding of prevalent racial attitudes underlie his cynicism.
Brie Larson's role is small. Nevertheless, she captures Eva's desire to make things better in her community, as well as her horror upon realizing that working with Bryan makes her a target. As Ralph, Tim Blake Nelson is a scene-stealer in the least pretentious meaning of that term. He's perfect as the shrewd, self-serving criminal who might still have a shred of morality buried somewhere deep inside.
Cretton (Short Term 12) makes each new legal development riveting through skillful pacing, so that we continually understand what's at stake. Everything adds up to a powerful look at the insidiousness of racism, especially how unspoken prejudices can conspire to put innocent people of color behind bars or mete out punishments that are not equivalent to their crimes. Just Mercy works beautifully as both an examination of a vital issue and as a gripping legal story.
out of four
Just Mercy is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets. The running time is 2 hours and 16 minutes.