Biopics, especially those that deal with the law and the wrongfully accused, can so often fall into plotting tropes that leave the film as little more than a straight-forward tale suited for the Hallmark channel, high on emotional manipulation. And whilst Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy is rather procedural in its storytelling, and you could argue that there’s little mystery to its trajectory – we know from the get-go that the story’s accused is an innocent man – it’s no less compelling due to the quiet and faithful mentality it adheres to.
Primarily focusing on the unjust conviction of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx), an African-American man condemned to death row in 1987 for the supposed murder of an 18-year-old white woman, this factual based drama may hit all the stirring beats we’d expect, but the truth burning at its core is undeniably important. What’s so frustrating about said truth is that despite overwhelming evidence in McMillan’s case that proved his innocence, the local law being routed deep in 1980’s Alabama racism meant a lack of any other suspects and their ability to coerce other criminals into falsifying statements only further implicated McMillan in a case he never had a chance of fighting.
It’s only when Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in town that McMillan’s hope appears to glimmer, though it’s certainly not without its challenges as Bryan similarly receives mistreatment from the local law enforcement off his skin colour, despite his legal credentials; a scene where he’s ask to strip out of his suit before visiting an inmate is infuriating in its bigotry. And as much as Just Mercy‘s title indicates an inspirational outcome, Cretton’s script (co-written with his Glass Castle collaborator, Andrew Lanham) is an uphill battle in achieving its justice with the film driving home the harsh realism that for every victory there was an act of vileness; one of the more maddening statistics recounted during the closing credits is that the real-life Sheriff who was instrumental in McMillan’s false imprisonment was re-elected a further 7 times by the Alabama locals.
Though the film occasionally strokes its canvas with stereotypical dialogue and rousing moments stating “the truth will ultimately take precedence”, Just Mercy is an important venture that highlights both how far we’ve come as a society yet how much further we have to travel in order to truly achieve equality when it comes to the law and its relationship with people of colour. This may not ultimately be the type of film you haven’t seen before from a structural and/or topical point of view, but it’s a subject worth revisiting, if only to continue the dialogue regarding what’s right and what’s wrong.