Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 19, 2020)
Based on a true story, 2019’s Just Mercy provides a courtroom drama with life and death stakes. We head back to Alabama circa 1987 and meet Walter “Johnnie D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a working-class black family man who finds himself in trouble with the law.
A year earlier, someone killed a white 18-year-old named Ronda Harrison, and the police accuse Johnnie D of the crime. Despite a paucity of evidence against him, the court finds Johnnie D guilty and sentenced to death.
In 1989, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) graduates from Harvard Law. Rather than take his pick of lucrative positions, he decides to work for the common good and acts as an advocate for those he believes received unjust sentences.
As part of this opportunity, Bryan takes on Johnnie D’s case. With the assistance of local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), Bryan digs into the situation and works to deliver justice.
Despite the fairly ample star power of Jordan, Foxx and Larson, Mercy didn’t find much of an audience. $50 million worldwide doesn’t seem like a terrible take for a flick that takes on this one’s heavy subject matter, but it still feels lackluster.
Perhaps it didn’t help that Clemency, another flick about an innocent man on death row, hit screens around the same time. Granted, that one made barely $300,000, so it probably didn’t steal many viewers from Mercy, but two similar stories at the same time might’ve damaged both.
Or perhaps audiences simply didn’t find much to interest them from Mercy, and I can’t blame them. While well-meaning and admirable in spirit, the film fails to find its own identity.
Face it: legal dramas about unjustly accused prisoners aren’t exactly new, and I can’t claim Mercy finds a twist. From start to finish, the movie feels like material we’ve seen many times in the past.
Not that a movie needs to be unique to work, of course. Even with the well-trodden nature of the “crusade for justice” narrative, the story can still succeed.
Clemency managed a twist because it spent so much time with the prison’s warden, and that created a change of pace. Sure, it still invested in the tale of its innocent death row inmate, but the emphasis on the warden allowed for something unusual.
No such curveballs exist in the fairly standard Mercy, as it walks a largely predictable path. Little tension or real drama crops up here, so we find ourselves with a tale that follows expected trails.
Too much of the movie goes down unnecessary tangents. Rather than focus on Johnnie D. and Bryan, we also track other death row inmates, with the inevitable execution scene as well.
This feels superfluous for the story at hand, and it seems like a cheap attempt to gin up emotion. Yes, one could argue Mercy needs a sequence like this to clearly depict the stakes at hand, but I think it comes across as manipulative.
I do like the fact Mercy features a black protagonist. Too many movies of this sort come with “white saviors” as their leads, so I appreciate the fact that doesn’t occur here.
The movie’s depiction of its Southern location contributes to the movie’s cliché nature, though. No, I don’t deny that racism was – and is – rampant in that part of the country, but it still feels like an easy way out for the filmmakers.
We’re conditioned to see Southerners as horrible racists, and Mercy does little to challenge that notion. The movie uses this conceit for cheap emotion and little more.
Mercy remains wholly professional, and the actors add credibility, as they all play their roles in an earnest, honest manner. They avoid potential melodramatic pitfalls and give their characters believability.
Unfortunately, they can’t turn Mercy into an especially compelling drama. While it seems more than competent, it lacks real narrative tension or depth, so it feels like a mediocre and semi-trite take on the subject.
Footnote: information about the real-life subjects of the film crop up during the end credits, though these cease by the time the film’s title appears onscreen. Some of these clips prove more emotional than the movie itself.