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Just Mercy

I’m a fan of Destin Daniel Cretton. I should hope that’s obvious after all the numerous times I’ve been telling you all to see Short Term 12, even in spite of that movie’s atrocious camerawork. And yes, The Glass Castle was a misfire, but I’ve seen far worse and it’s not all bad by any means.

So now director/co-writer/producer Cretton is coming out with Just Mercy, his highest-profile awards push to date. Here we have a phenomenal cast with the likes of Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan, and of course Cretton’s longtime collaborator Brie Larson.

(Side note: Cretton’s next project is reportedly Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings over at Marvel. I don’t know if they’ll find a way to shoehorn Captain Marvel into that picture, but we’ll see.)

The movie chronicles the early career of lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who also exec-produced the film and wrote the memoir the screenplay was based on. He’s played by Michael B. Jordan, another exec-producer. The film has various legal cases as minor subplots, but the main thrust of the film concerns Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx, who was not a producer here, so far as I can tell).

In 1986, a white woman named Ronda Morrison was murdered in the Alabama town of Monroeville. A year later, police arrested McMillian for the crime. Even though McMillian and Morrison never knew each other, no motive was ever established, no evidence was ever produced, and numerous witnesses place McMillian eleven miles away from the time and place of the crime. All the police could ever produce was a self-contradictory and totally nonsensical account from a white career criminal (Ralph Myers, played by Tim Blake Nelson) who produced the testimony for a plea bargain.

(Side note: The film makes a huge deal out of Monroeville’s claim to fame as the home of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a story that features a black man wrongfully convicted of rape. Nobody in town seems to notice the irony.)

Yet McMillian was imprisoned on death row before the trial even happened. He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison. A month later, one Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. (Yes, this is seriously a true story, look it up.) overrode the ruling because he thought it was too soft and sentenced McMillian to death.

Enter Stevenson, a lawyer fresh out of Harvard. He could’ve gotten a job anywhere, but he got a federal grant to set up a law firm in Alabama representing convicts on death row. Of course he takes up McMillian’s case pretty much immediately and we’re off to the races.

To repeat: Stevenson and his colleagues are representing convicted murderers and rapists, working to get them lighter sentences and maybe even exonerate them completely. Of course they’re met with no shortage of resistance — nobody wants to see homicidal psychopaths walking the streets.

First of all, that’s treating prisoners as inhuman monsters and scumbags, conveniently depriving them of the rights and the dignity any other person would be perfectly entitled to. Take, for example, the case of Herbert Richardson (here played by Rob Morgan). He’s on death row for killing someone with a pipe bomb. Yet he’s also a Vietnam war veteran who came back with such crippling PTSD that he can barely function. Should his deteriorating mental state be a mitigating factor? Would it do more good for him to be on death row or in a hospital? In all of Alabama, there’s maybe something like a dozen people who are even willing to consider the question.

Secondly, that mindset rests on the assumption that everyone on death row or serving life in prison really is a monster that deserves to be there. It assumes that the system is perfect, or at least fair. And that is demonstrably untrue. Especially in a southern Confederalist stronghold like Alabama. Another fine example is Anthony Ray Hinton (here played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who got convicted for two murders and served 28 years on death row on no evidence and for no other reason than because he was black. (Yes, seriously.)

In plenty of past reviews, I’ve talked about the need for nuance in portraying white bigotry. I’m sick and tired of movies populated with white racist caricatures so pompous and overblown that they’re no longer recognizable as human. Racism has to be portrayed as something more subtle and omnipresent, so hard-wired into our culture that it’s easy to justify or ignore.

Somehow, this movie tries to take both approaches. It doesn’t really work.

I mean, yes, the movie has its heart and its head in the right place. The filmmakers use this central premise as a springboard to talk about poverty, bigotry, exploitation of prison labor, the disproportionate number of colored people locked up and/or on death row, and a wide number of related topics.

Moreover, we only ever see a white character drop an N-bomb once, in a mocking caricature of the white redneck stereotype. Otherwise, every white character in this movie is careful to never openly use racial epithets or explicitly call people of color inferior. It’s never about race to these white people, it’s about crime and punishment. It’s about keeping murderers off the street and making sure citizens feel safe. All talking points that sound perfectly sensible to anyone who’s never been in a black neighborhood. Try asking McMillian’s family and neighbors if they feel safe. Ask them how they feel about upholding a system that could put them to death for literally no reason at all.

And of course that’s not even getting started on Ronda Morrison’s death. Why go to all the time and trouble of finding her real killer when we can sleep in ignorant comfort knowing we blamed it all on a guiltless scapegoat?

There are a great number of thoughtful and relevant statements to be found here, delivered in a heartfelt way. And for the most part, they’re made by soaring, overwritten speeches, delivered by A-list actors straight into the camera, shot in extreme close-up. It doesn’t make the performances any less remarkable, but it gives the film an unpleasant kind of Oscar-grabbing self-importance. The message itself is perfectly authentic, but the presentation doesn’t feel that way.

It certainly doesn’t help that the characters are so clearly delineated between “good guys” and “bad guys”. In the former category, we have such charismatic and fiery talents as Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, and Jamie Foxx. On the other side… Look, you don’t cast Rafe Spall or Tim Blake Nelson to play sympathetic characters, especially not in a race drama like this. They’re going to play total shitweasels because that’s their wheelhouse. It’s fascinating to me how every white character in this movie (Brie Larson’s character and her family excluded) could be written in such a nuanced and credible way, and yet presented onscreen as garish racist stereotypes.

Then we have the matter of the execution scene. Without giving too much away, Stevenson does sadly lose a case and he watches a client die in the electric chair. It’s an especially horrific method of execution, and the film is clear in telling us about it. In fact, the filmmakers have to tell us about it verbally, because they cut away at the last second to show us the reactions of the onlookers.

I understand why the filmmakers did this, but it’s not a choice I agree with.

To start with, this is very clearly and explicitly a film about the inherently cruel and (in America, at least) racially motivated practice of the death penalty. It’s counter-productive and frankly a little chickenshit to go through all this trouble in framing such a dramatic execution only to pull the punch at the last second. Yes, it would’ve been shocking and grotesque to portray it onscreen — what better way to show the actual practice as shocking and grotesque? Either drop the bomb or don’t, but don’t settle for half-measures like this.

Seriously, countless filmmakers have already depicted black people getting mercilessly beaten and shot down in cold blood by cops. Is that really so much more palatable than depicting a black man being executed by the state? Either way, the blood is on our hands. If that’s your message, fucking own it.

Just Mercy is a perfectly good film, but it could’ve been better. There’s a lot of powerful stuff in here about institutional racism, the inherent cruelty of capital punishment, the courage needed to stand up to a blatantly prejudiced system, and so on. The filmmakers clearly knew what they were doing, which makes it all the more disappointing when they play it safe and easy. The performances are deeply passionate and worthy of such a horrific subject, but there’s still an artificial Oscar-bait sheen the filmmakers can’t seem to wipe off.

The attitude is there, but the authenticity is repeatedly undercut. I’ve seen many, many worse socially-minded dramas, but there are still a handful of others I’d recommend first. There’s no rush to go see this one, especially since it got shut out of this year’s Oscars.

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