Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson may well be a living saint. In 1989, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that has successfully challenged the death row convictions of more than 125 inmates. He has been called “America’s Mandela” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his 30-year mission to expose and correct the pervasive racial bias ingrained in our criminal justice system. Among his countless awards and distinctions is a MacArthur grant, the money from which he poured back into his nonprofit. In a just world, he’d be stopped on the street and in restaurants by fans requesting selfies, the way the Hulk is in the Avengers movies.
But none of those accomplishments automatically lend themselves to making Stevenson a compelling cinematic hero—a fact borne out by the new legal drama Just Mercy. Based on Stevenson’s acclaimed 2014 memoir, the film follows one of his first cases, that of a black tree cutter named Walter McMillian (a disappointingly muted Jamie Foxx) falsely convicted of killing an 18-year-old white woman in small-town Alabama. (In a real-life detail that would’ve been met with eye-rolls in a movie or a novel, the life sentence that the jury recommended for McMillian was escalated to a death sentence by a judge named Robert E. Lee Key.) Just Mercy ably evokes the Kafkaesque maze that the legal system can be, particularly for economically disadvantaged suspects of color, who are too often viewed as criminals first and human beings a distant second. (Even Stevenson, played by a quietly observant Michael B. Jordan, is subject to petty and illegal humiliations by lower-ranking white officials, who find ways to exploit the lawyer’s concerns about his clients against him.) But writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) rarely elevates the proceedings above a TV movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird (a novel that was written, incidentally, in the same town where Just Mercy takes place). The clear-cut morality of the plot necessitates dramatic tension or righteous fury, and Cretton delivers neither.
At the film’s start, Stevenson is an idealistic recent Harvard Law grad—but more importantly, he’s a Northerner unprepared for what might charitably be called the idiosyncrasies of rural Southern courts. (Partisans of the South may quibble with the way Just Mercy depicts racism below the Mason-Dixon Line as more blatant and backward than Northern prejudice, but the film’s implicit critique that the death penalty is applied more freely and more liberally there is true to the facts.) In the first hour, Cretton uses Stevenson as little more than an entry-point character, as he sifts through the layers of injustice in McMillian’s case, which include a laughably implausible eyewitness testimony by a white felon (Tim Blake Nelson). It’s understandable that Cretton and his co-writer Andrew Lanham didn’t want to burden an actual hero like Stevenson with contrived flaws, but the fictional version ends up studiously featureless despite Jordan’s considerable charisma and ready command of simmering rage. It doesn’t help that the actor is betrayed often by painfully earnest lines like “it’s not too late for justice,” delivered to rooms full of characters even less developed than himself.
It’s clear why Cretton and Lanham thought restraint might be the best approach: The twists and turns in Stevenson’s journey to exonerate McMillian need no embellishment. The lawyer encounters violent police harassment and a gratuitously corrupt district attorney (Rafe Spall), while Stevenson’s assistant (Cretton’s frequent collaborator Brie Larson, in a thankless role) fields bomb threats at her home. (If anything, the movie seems to play down the events in Stevenson’s memoir.) And yet all of those menaces pale next to the vicious whims of the judge who presides over Stevenson’s motions for a retrial in light of new and damning evidence. The needless cruelty of the criminal justice system feels like a world begging for more sense-making, but Just Mercy only sees its characters as heroes, victims, or obstacles, not as rational beings who might have their own reasons to knowingly commit terrible acts. Cretton’s desire to focus tightly on McMillian’s case makes sense, but he accidentally makes the white malefactors in the town more fascinating for their villainy. A TV drama like The Wire or a podcast like S-Town would have the canvas to explore complicity within these institutions, but Just Mercy paints only in black and white.