Maui born writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton returns with his third feature and first major Hollywood studio film. Based on a true story “Just Mercy” is destined for Oscar bait featuring gut punching performances from Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Cretton has a passion for the message but can’t overcome the formulaic structure. He directs with an unshowy approach to where the film feels like a TV series legal drama pilot. Cretton delivers powerful moments here and there including one sequence that serves as his best work as a filmmaker so far. It’s a film worth watching, absorbing and discussing.
The film will be released in limited release on December 25, 2019 and will go wide on January 10, 2020.
Writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton hails from my home island of Maui. Born and raised in Haiku, Cretton has quickly found himself among the Hollywood’s elite. His 2013 debut “Short Term 12” was a wonderful film, that was one of the years best films. It introduced audiences to the talents of the writer and director who made an impressive debut, offering a gritty but humane drama and one that also managed to boost the career of “Captain Marvel” star Brie Larson. In 2017, Cretton returned with “The Glass Castle,” reuniting once again with Brie Larson. While “The Glass Castle” failed to make a splash like “Short Term 12”. Cretton is back with his biggest film to date and his first Hollywood studio film, being released by Warner Bros.
Serving as both director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton and his co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham’s legal drama “Just Mercy” is based on a true story. The screenwriters use the real lawyer depicted in the film Bryan Stevenson’s award-winning non-fiction book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” as source material. The real Stevenson also serves as the films executive producer, insuring the film stays true to it’s real events.
It’s 1987 and Alabama resident Walter (Jamie Foxx) is arrested by the police, charged with the murder of a white woman. He claims innocence, but the law condemns him, sending Walter to death row, where he joins Herbert (an excellent Rob Morgan) and Anthony (Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr.) as they wait for their execution date. Two years later, Bryan (Michael B. Jordan) moves from Delaware to Alabama to set up the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization offering legal representation to wrongly accused prisoners who can’t cover the cost.
He is joined by colleague Eva (Brie Larson), Bryan is quickly introduced to the ways of Alabama justice, meeting with Walter, who doesn’t believe anyone can help him. Studying the evidence and legal inconsistencies, Bryan begins to understand a pattern of corruption that led to Walter’s arrest, challenging local leaders, such as District Attorney Tommy (Rafe Spall), on the facts of the case, providing hope to Walter and his loved ones that freedom may be a possibility after years spent waiting to die.
Confusion is encountered with Walter’s initial arrest, with the resident pulled over by the cops, who are eager to bring him down for a crime he doesn’t understand, pulled away from his family and sent to prison, left to rot inside a small cell situated next to other men in similar situations. Bryan’s mission is to figure out what’s going on with the legal system, but he’s young and idealistic, bringing pro bono work to the far reaches of Alabama, entering the state as a black man working to free other black men convicted of heinous crimes.
Bryan is not welcome, but he’s determined to clear Walter’s name. This forward momentum makes up the first half of “Just Mercy,” which follows the lawyer as he meets with a host of inmates, each sharing their personal story of frustration and denial. This sets the stage for an uphill battle that will expose how little has really changed since the Civil Rights era.
“Just Mercy” has its heart in the right place, as it questions a legal system designed to make humans disposable. Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham have passion for their message, but Cretton follows a similar format to other legal procedurals about injustice. “Just Mercy” plays it safe and formulaic from a structural standpoint. The steps in the narrative are so familiar that it becomes a matter of you playing a guessing game of when certain cliched tropes will occur.
Cretton aims more for a unshowy and at times hand handheld style camera work. He doesn’t resort to fancy or stylized filmmaking, that gives the endeavor a T.V. pilot atmosphere instead of feeling like a movie that’s meant to change the world. While it’s formulaic, it has all the heart and star power for a film that’s made for the Oscar race.
Talk about Oscar worthy it’s two stars Michael B Jordan (“Creed”) and Jamie Foxx should be solid bets for Oscar nods. Michael B Jordan (also serves as producer), has a wonderful screen presence channeling a young Sidney Poitier in the lead role. Jordan’s performance is worthy of his first Oscar nomination.
Jamie Foxx is among most underrated guys in the biz. His role in “Just Mercy” ranks with some of his best performances such as in “Ray” and “Django Unchained”. Armed with a few monologues and quietly powerful scenes. Foxx can say so much with doing so little as he strips down and demands attention in a powerfully emotional performance. Both actors are turning in memorable and gut-punching performances.
Here is Brie Larson reuniting with Cretton for the third time this time only signing on for a tiny part as Eva Ansley who helps Stevenson run the Equal Justice Initiative. Larson is equipped with her 80’s hairstyle (looking like the real Eva Ansley). While she only has a handful of scenes, Larson continues to impress but her role feels underdeveloped.
Cretton is skilled at pulling apart the pieces of a horribly unjust legal system. The film is fuelled by righteous anger where racism takes over civil rights and humanity. Cretton and Andrew Lanham’s screenplay expresses the injustice across to audiences while emphasising the racial tensions through harsh PG-13 dialogue and interactions. The film offers plenty of food for thought and shines a light on the horrors of the legal system.
In one disturbing but very powerful scene, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) is going through the process of his execution after Stevenson’s motion to extend his execution date was denied. We follow Richardson from shaving to prayer to being strapped in the electric chair. Cretton’s direction and camera lingers on Richardson’s face and body. It’s the rawest scene for a film that feels like it was positioned for a feel-good, stand up and cheer social justice film. It’s a powerful scene that’s necessary and is the best piece of filmmaking Cretton has accomplished.
Stevenson’s investigation doesn’t contain nearly enough twists to justify the films two hour and seventeen minute runtime. Instead they use that runtime for messages of uplift and becoming the kind of movie of when its characters applaud, the audience applauds too especially in a final courtroom scene that begs for big applause moments. Stay tuned at the end as the real photos and video footage during the epilogue is exceptionally powerful.
While the film feels very one note and has its formulaic approach, “Just Mercy” is the sort of film that’s worth watching, absorbing and discussing. It’s sure fire Oscar bait material as the story it tells has not stopped being relevant in the decades since. Cretton adapts the book, with a confident hand in directing a celebration of what it takes to seek out justice in a broken system.
GRADE: ★★★1/2☆☆ (3 & 1/2 out of 5)