We have another contender—and its kicking ass, tbh
The world is an angry one right now—and I think that’s why so many films, series and documentaries that fall within the anti-system genre have become so popular. You know the type: innocent layman faces up against the powers-that-be, a group of oppressed individuals face up against abusive law enforcers, anything that essentially makes any sort of claim against the establishment.
Some additions to the genre aren’t all that worthwhile. Some are still fearful to make direct claims; others just don’t tell their narrative quite well. But there’s a new contender in the form if Just Mercy, and it’s kicking some major ass.
Just Mercy centers on lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he makes the risky move to set up office in Alabama to review and represent death row inmates whom he believes were wrongfully convicted. With the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he makes history in taking the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who years before, was sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl.
That above is the PG version of the film’s synopsis. But in case you aren’t (as I wasn’t) privy to American history, Alabama was still pretty exclusive when all this was happening as they actively saw and treated people of color as second-rate citizens—and that is the darkness that kind of envelopes the entire film.
One thing that Just Mercy does well is that it develops its characters with enough time that it feels neither rushed (hello, Kylo Ren) nor overdone (hi, Richard Jewell). We get enough time with Stevenson, see the triggers that take him from wide-eyed Harvard Law graduate to realistic-yet-unforgiving lawyer. There is enough screen time surrounding McMillian that we get to clearly understand why and how he lets Stevenson take his case. Even Ansley, whose role is minimal, has a strong and moving moment that cements her dedication to the cause.
But the performances are only made possible by the script of Destin Daniel Cretton (who also directed) and Andrew Lanham, which opts for a quiet praise as opposed to forceful and dragging speeches. And, yes, there is no question that it focuses on the mishandling of McMillian’s case, but Just Mercy effectively captures the bigger picture: what the effect of racism and poverty can do to a society and the justice system, as well as what happens to us when we let prejudices become norm.
My fear with the film was that it would be too dramatic with its premise and history and present-day subtleties—but it wasn’t. There are moments that will shock you and there are moments that will cause your heart to break, but it was never more than it had to be. The direction didn’t play with emotions and did not milk a scene for sheer dramatization. Even if it wasn’t intentional, every second was filled with intent; every instance was an instance.
Let me say this last thing: with unquenchable thirst for stories just like it, Just Mercy is in no way unique. The story of Stevenson and McMillian is a worthy one to tell, but we’ve heard others like it. The difference—the important difference—is in how it’s told. And it’s told in a way that just has to be experienced.
The Just Mercy movie will premiere in Philippine cinemas on January 22.
Art Alexandra Lara