“Every generation has a hero. Meet ours.” This is what director Destin Daniel Cretton urges viewers to do in his film “Just Mercy,” which is based on a book of the same title. “Just Mercy” details lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to combat mass incarceration among communities that look just like the ones in which he grew up. Cretton seeks to demonstrate how issues of mass imprisonment are not just tied to systematic inequalities and biased infrastructure, but rather rooted deeply in inherent racism and cycles of prejudice. The story is captivating and personal, spanning Stevenson’s beginnings as an intern in a prison outreach program to establishing his own organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, in Monroeville, Ala.
The cast of the film deserves a round of applause for delivering spellbinding performances. Michael B. Jordan, who plays Stevenson, portrays the influential figure’s deep compassion and humility with grace. Throughout the film, we witness the growth of Stevenson’s character as he encounters both close-mindedness from members of the white upper-class community and welcoming love and appreciation from the Black community in Monroeville. Jordan is eloquent and enthralling as he delivers his performance in the courtroom during Walter McMillian’s (Jamie Foxx) trial.
Foxx gives another notable performance, conveying the emotions and integrity of McMillian brilliantly. Foxx reflects the initial apprehension and frustration of McMillian effectively, providing room for his bond with Stevenson to grow as he gains his trust. He also subtly demonstrates the good-heartedness of McMillian through his interactions with other inmates, presenting a character who is a humble man just like anyone else, praying for his rightful freedom.
Rob Morgan, who plays McMillian’s fellow inmate Herbert Richardson, has the most heart-wrenching performance of the film by far. Morgan gains the audience’s sympathy very quickly, unmasking the fragility and vulnerability behind his character. He does a magnificent job of portraying the scars of Richardson’s PTSD with accuracy, capturing his guilt toward the past. Viewers see him as a man ruined by the atrocities of war and watch with horror and solemnity as he is executed via the electric chair. The tragic sequence of his execution highlights the raw inhumanity of capital punishment, exposing the audience to the same cruelty that spurred Stevenson to fight even harder for his clients.
Also to be celebrated is Brett Pawlak’s excellent cinematography and Cretton’s skillful direction. The natural scenery and beauty of the South is juxtaposed poignantly with the ignorance and racism ingrained within much of the white community of Monroeville. Visual parallels are drawn between inmates’ labor and humiliation and the history of segregation and slavery in the United States. A scene of Stevenson being strip-searched as he enters the prison for the first time is haunting, as all that he has worked so hard for is taken from him by an oppressive, discriminatory authority.
A common thread that soundtrack producer Joel P. West weaves masterfully throughout the film is the emotional weight of music. When Stevenson visits Rockdale County Jail as a student, he initially connects with inmate Henry Davis (J. Alphonse Nicholson) over singing in a church choir. After witnessing the harrowing death of Richardson, Stevenson attends gospel church to ease his mind. The power of music to heal and unite people is a theme that Cretton implements superbly in many scenes, such as when McMillian, Richardson and their other friend Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) bond over music while in prison, or when Richardson’s favorite song plays in the background during his execution.
As the title of the film suggests, Stevenson’s mission is simple — to justly grant individuals mercy. Cretton’s film also implies a second meaning: Stevenson is after something very basic and necessary for all human beings. He is after just mercy, something that shouldn’t be denied to anyone. Overall, “Just Mercy” does an outstanding job conveying a compelling story and illuminating the inspiring actions of Bryan Stevenson.