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‘Just Mercy’ puts racism on trial

| Thursday, January 23, 2020

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy” strikes many emotional chords through the use of thoughtful details. From joy to sorrow and everything in between, it would be best to settle in for this two-plus-hour movie that captures the realities of racial inequality on death row in Alabama.

The film opens on a quiet forest scene. Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) minds his own business as he cuts down trees, gazing up at the peaceful canopy fringing the sky. McMillian’s subsequent drive home forms an immediate contrast to the opening scene as he is pulled over by the town sheriff and arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Meanwhile, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) chooses to work in Alabama after graduating from Harvard Law School, much to the discomfort of his mother and family who question his decision to head to the heart of the South. Upon arriving in Alabama, Stevenson encounters the first of many obstacles in starting his law practice along with advocate Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). When a potential renter realizes that Stevenson and Ansley aim to combat wrongful condemnations of mostly African-American inmates on death row, he denies them a room for their office.

McMillian, also known as Johnny D., doesn’t have much hope about his charges getting dropped, warning Stevenson about the rough road to justice. The relationship that develops between veteran actor Jamie Foxx and newer star Michael B. Jordan ties the film together with a tight thread.

When prisoner Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) is sentenced to death by the electric chair, the chorus of tin cups and pans on cell bars signals a quiet defiance from his fellow inmates. This display raises the bar for Johnny D.’s case, which sees its own very sharp ups and downs.

Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall and Michael Harding build up both tension and viewer frustration as convicted white man Ralph Myers, stubborn accuser Tommy Chapman and menacing Sheriff Tate, respectively. Their denial of a truth that becomes glaringly obvious throughout the film — the false narrative constructed by the police and court system to perpetuate racism while simultaneously ignoring its presence — kept my eyes glued to the screen.

From tears at the injustice done to Herbert to pure elation at the outcome of enduring persistence, “Just Mercy” demands to be watched by America.

The film’s navigation of the complex legal system — especially one intertwined with injustice — proves successful. A manifestation of the realization of wrongdoing occurs through Hayes Mercure’s character, a young policeman whose initial arrogance gives way to shock and shame.

With a supportive soundtrack and powerful cast, “Just Mercy” delivers the message of the true story upon which it is based.

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