Despite the good intentions of talented director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”), “Just Mercy” is a watered-down adaptation of the memoir of attorney Bryan Stevenson. By stark contrast, Stevenson’s vibrant, revealing source material is about the systemic decay that consumed America’s criminal justice system in the 1980s and beyond.
This movie has nothing of the book’s considerable breadth. Instead, by focusing almost exclusively on one of Stevenson’s most egregious cases, the narrative gets lost in the garden variety and sanctimonious trappings associated with typical courtroom dramas.
Where Stevenson’s book was chocked full of startling facts and figures that vividly put the system on trial, Cretton’s script, he’s co-written with Andrew Lanham (see “The Shack”), is lifeless.
“Just Mercy” is the story of a Harvard educated attorney, Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who moves to Alabama and sets up an appellate law practice in Montgomery. His goal is to assist defendants, many of whom are African American, in appealing their convictions. And through his tenacious, brilliant work, several wrongfully convicted men and women were released.
In real life, Stevenson’s efforts were instrumental in changing sentencing practices, particularly for those with mental health problems and the very young. After reading his book, I began to think differently about criminal law, and I’ve been practicing it for nearly 25 years.
One of his first and most personal cases involves Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was placed on death row for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson was not his trial attorney, but as we learn in the book, one of the most ghastly facts was that he was held on death row in Alabama even long before his trial.
Regrettably, this movie glosses over so much of McMillian’s story that the impact of the monstrous wrong is somewhat muted. How can a movie do that? It’s unthinkable, but “Just Mercy” fails to make the viewer viscerally feel the pain.
In the book, we get the context of McMillian’s story, but we also get many other equally moving cases of injustice. The movie leaves out so much that it will frustrate anyone who has read the source material.
If ever there was a film that could have benefitted from the kind of punk rock filmmaking approach employed by director Adam McKay in 2015’s Oscar-nominated “The Big Short,” “Just Mercy” would be that movie. Nowhere does Cretton give us the shocking details that motivated Stevenson to do his great work around the country. This lack of context makes the safe, stagnant “Just Mercy” a big missed opportunity.
One of the movie’s missteps is in casting action star Michael B. Jordan as the thoughtful and persistent Stevenson. Jordan is a fine actor, but he’s entirely wrong for this role. The book convey’s Stevenson’s tender empathy for his clients. Jordan is a take-charge physical actor, but Stevenson, based on my read, was successful because of his restraint and reliance on the law. He’s a bookish sort of superhero, but one leaving a big footprint.
Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, is well-cast as Walter McMillian. He slips well into the role of a shaggy, hard-working tree cutting expert, who raised suspicion of his fellow citizens when he had an affair with a white woman. And McMillian’s success in the tree business was another reason that the establishment was keen on taking him down. Foxx has the look but also a deep appreciation for his character. It’s a good piece of acting in an otherwise mediocre film.
“Just Mercy” could have been an intelligent and sophisticated adaptation of a fantastic non-fiction tome. Instead, it’s another ordinary and, sadly, dated movie from the John Grisham school. Fans of the book will be left wanting and empty.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com