‘Just Mercy,’ a culturally relevant film about ‘race, injustice’
The name Destin Daniel Cretton does not jump readily to the lips of most casual movie-goers; but he’s one director to keep an eye on.
This filmmaker’s previous resume is short but impressive, limited to just two strong titles (“Room” and “The Glass Castle”) plus his debut, a truly excellent sleeper called “Short Term 12.”
But Cretton’s best film is his new one: “Just Mercy.”
It’s a gripping courtroom thriller about race, injustice and police corruption — an incredible true-life story so insanely relevant to current events that the film’s distributors are streaming it free through the end of June on just about every platform you can name.
Set in Alabama in the late 1980s, the film concerns black lumberjack “Johnny D” McMillian, who has been on death row awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit. The man is accused of brutally slaying a teenage white girl, but the state had only one major witness, and it soon becomes clear that his testimony was rigged. Plus, local law enforcement — eager for a quick resolution to an awful murder — suppressed other vital evidence in the case.
And now, they aren’t being any more cooperative when a dedicated young Harvard Law grad, one Bryan Livingston, arrives on the scene to open a nonprofit firm advocating for under-represented plaintiffs. Livingston encounters stonewalling, anger and personal threats as he tries to get McMillian a retrial; and the film repeatedly hammers away at one of its most appalling real-life ironies: All this race-driven persecution took place in Monroeville, Alabama.
Birthplace of author Harper Lee, Monroeville was the inspiration for Maycomb in her classic novel of racial injustice, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In “Just Mercy,” local authorities keep boasting about this heritage, while all their procedural obfuscation only demonstrates how deaf they’ve been to Lee’s potent message: Despite the book’s famous speech from Atticus Finch about equality, very little progress has apparently been made in achieving just treatment for blacks in a court of law.
I read at least one review suggesting “Just Mercy” was at times even more powerful than “Mockingbird.” While I’m not sure I’d go that far, it is unquestionably a masterpiece, bolstered by a bevy of brilliant performances.
Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,” “Black Panther,” “Fruitvale Station”) is both fierce and dignified as Livingston who wrote the nonfiction book on which this film is based. Jamie Foxx is at the top of his game as McMillian, a man so beaten down by the system that he hardly can allow himself to hope anymore.
Also excellent: Brie Larson, who so far has starred in all of Cretton’s films, as Livingston’s coworker in the law office; Karan Kendrick as McMillian’s long-suffering wife; Rafe Spall is a worthless DA; and particularly Tim Blake Nelson, giving his best performance yet as the case’s alleged “eyewitness” — who turns out to have been brutally intimidated by police into providing false testimony.
Add in Brett Pawlak’s expert cinematography and a soulful score from Joel P. West, and you’ve got a film that should have nailed a pile of Oscar noms. I remain befuddled as to how the Academy completely overlooked this amazing piece of work.
For the record, Cretton’s next project is for Marvel; due in 2021, it’s an Asian superhero saga about Marvel Comics’ martial-arts expert Shang-Chi.
Count me in.