Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson, Karen Kendrick.
Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham, based on a book by Bryan Stevenson
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
Running Time: 136
Date: 12/25/2019
IMDB

Just Mercy (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Alabama Stakes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It follows a pretty traditional arc, but this prison/courtroom drama is nevertheless effectively tense and moving, due to the movie's picture of simmering racial injustice and the fine performances.

In Just Mercy, young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) decides, after serving an internship helping death row inmates, to devote himself to the cause full-time. He moves to Monroeville, Alabama (home of Harper Lee), teams up with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), and begins focusing on the case of Walter "Johnny D." McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Johnny D. was accused and convicted of killing a teen girl, based on testimony by two unreliable witnesses.

Bryan thinks it will be easy to prove that Johnny D. was nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the murder, but he quickly finds that the white establishment in Alabama is not so eager to allow a convicted murderer back out on the street. Can Bryan find justice for his client?

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Just Mercy almost always feels like a movie, with all the familiar beats, speeches, and plot turns occurring just when they're supposed to, without the messiness of life coming into it (as it did so vividly in Cretton's remarkable breakthrough feature, Short Term 12). But it quickly establishes a good sense of place, from Bryan suffering the indignities of being black in Alabama, to the large gathering of friends and neighbors at the home of Johnny D.'s family when Bryan goes to see them.

Just Mercy also establishes a slate of solid supporting characters — including a subtly menacing District Attorney (Rafe Spall), a candy-munching convict (Tim Blake Nelson), and Johnny D.'s next-cell neighbors on death row (O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Rob Morgan) — all of whom add to the movie's texture.

Then, as the pieces of the puzzle come together, occasionally blocked by bigotry and corruption, the tension and excitement begin to ramp up. The final piece is Jamie Foxx, in a very strong performance as Johnny D., hardened and reluctant to hope anymore. In the moments he does actually find hope, his emotion is palpable.

Warner Bros. Home Video released a fine-looking, but fairly basic Blu-ray edition in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully sheltering-at-home viewers will give it a chance. It includes a Movies Anywhere digital copy, three short behind-the-scenes featurettes, and about 15 minutes of deleted scenes.

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