BFI London Film Festival: Just Mercy

Just Mercy
Just Mercy
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson
Screening at LFF October 5th and 9th, 2019

by Alex Plant

In an age where the true crime documentary reigns supreme, Destin Daniel Cretton has turned the sort of story we’re used to seeing as a multi-part Netflix series into a powerful piece of humanist cinema that is sure to garner some serious awards attention. Adapted from the book of the same title, Just Mercy tells the real-life story of renowned defence attorney Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) and the uphill struggle he faces representing death row inmates and fighting the institutional racism in the Alabama judicial system.

The film primarily focuses on the case of Walter “Johnnie D” McMillan (Foxx), a man sentenced to death for the murder of an 18-year-old white girl. When Bryan looks over his case he realises that the evidence used to convict Johnnie D is flimsy at best and along with his colleague Eva Ansley (Larson) begins the process to try to grant Johnnie D a retrial.

At every opportunity Cretton reminds us that in Alabama even as recently as the 80s being black was as good as having the word “guilty” written across your forehead. Bryan too, even as an outsider and Harvard graduate, is frequently subject to humiliation and persecution from prison guards and local law enforcement just because of his race.

Just Mercy hangs primarily on Jordan’s performance, which is nothing short of stunning and is wonderfully chaste. He brings a quiet dignity that is surely a reflection of the real Stevenson, constantly radiating compassion and only occasionally giving the slightest hint of the true weight upon his shoulders. He’s backed by an excellent supporting cast. Particularly memorable are Tim Blake-Nelson as the man whose testimony got Johnnie D convicted in the first place and Rob Morgan, who is heartbreaking as a PTSD suffering Vietnam veteran facing execution.

Just Mercy is an inspiring and frustrating story in equal measure, but one that definitely needs to be told. Bryan Stevenson’s poignant memoir is made all the more powerful by the film’s truly excellent performances.


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