- Katie Bell
Just Mercy - 2019
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Just Mercy isn't just about mercy...just so you know.
Just Mercy explores the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his fight to save the wrongly-accused, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), from death row. Although this film specifically focuses on Stevenson's work with McMillian, it also addresses some of the other people who he fought for, over his extensive career and consequently the injustices that they faced.
It's hard not to appreciate the simplicity of the way in which Just Mercy is presented. First of all, this is a film that uses a lot of close-up shots. However, this isn't a demonstration of a lack of creativity. This is Destin Daniel Cretton's method of communicating emotion. Towards the beginning of the film, we witness McMillian's arrest. He is driving home in the evening, after a day at work, when he runs into a police roadblock. Two close-up shots are used. Firstly, we see Jamie Foxx's facial expression, demonstrating his confusion. Then we get the close-up of his hands, moving slowly to a place in which they will be more visible to the approaching police: on top of the steering wheel. McMillian's fear is crystal clear in this moment. Although, these are just two examples, it's important to note, that close up shots are consistently used throughout the film to great effect. Many of these are used to communicate Jordan's reactions. On multiple occasions, we are aware of things that are occurring out of the frame, and feel the full force of them, through a shot of Jordan or Foxx's face. (I realise that last sentence is decidedly vague - but I'm trying to be spoiler-free, so hopefully you can navigate the vagueness). Cretton's style may feel simplistic, but it's extremely effective, not only in terms of communicating emotion, but also in terms of evoking empathy and understanding from audience members and it leaves a very small margin of error for his actors.
The use of sound is particularly powerful in this film. The music used is incredibly evocative. However, the use of silence is even more effective. At certain pivotal points, when you might expect the orchestra to swell, Cretton opts for silence instead. I'm telling you from first hand experience, you could hear a pin drop in the cinema. It catapults the tension and the emotions and honestly, it's a really effective way to communicate the realism. We know it's a true story going in, but opting for silence over song seems to make it more natural or rather, less film-like.
As could be anticipated, this film addresses many topical issues. These range from the treatment of veterans to capital punishment and finally systemic racism. The irony used to convey the bigotry of Alabama residents is powerful, and at times mildly humorous (in a, "I can't believe they don't realise how racist they are" kind of way). Although many officials in the area seem hell-bent on executing McMillian and ignoring any possibility that there isn't enough evidence against him, they also, at every conceivable moment, remind Stevenson in particular, that this town is the home of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson repeatedly receives recommendations to visit Mockingbird Museum, from people who refuse to take a second look at McMillian's case. The character's who engage in racist behaviour, are consistently in denial about being racist and even seem offended by the notion. This reflection of reality, in my opinion, is possibly one of the most important. Obviously, there are also plenty of moments of corruption throughout this film, where people with too much power, use that power, to the detriment of others and to further their own bigoted agenda. These are themes that are still timely, relevant and require discussion.
I've kept this review short, but do have some final thoughts. I'm fairly bummed at the lack of nominations that this film has received thus far. Sure, there's been a few, and sure Jamie Foxx has openly expressed that the purpose of this film wasn't to win awards, but I still think it deserves more recognition than it's received. Foxx and Jordan both deliver incredible performances and this movie is powerful. If you aren't afraid to cry in public, go see it. And if you are afraid of crying in public? Go see it anyway. The messages are important, and even though the themes aren't foreign concepts to me, seeing a true story demonstrating them on the big screen, developed my understanding in a new and important way.