January is a time where most of us, myself included, are regretting our ‘but it’s Christmas’ binge fests and trying to make our wages last that extra week until pay day, but what keeps me going into that full-on January Blues mood is the fact that it’s this time of year that a large majority of Oscar-calibre films are released in the UK.
There are some that may say that Just Mercy is an ‘Oscar-baiting’ film and to be honest they wouldn’t be wrong, the signs are all there; biographical story featuring a strong social issue (racism) released at such a time as to be fresh in the judges minds. However, as I stated in last year’s review of Green Book, I am not opposed to Oscar-baiting, just as long as they deliver something that is more style over substance, and I am pleased to say that Just Mercy absolutely delivers. Given that Green Book made it into my top ten favourite films of last year, Just Mercy has a very, very good chance of doing the same, so watch this space…
This biographical legal drama centres around the young, idealistic lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who finds his calling during an internship that represented inmates on death-row. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Bryan moves to Montgomery County in Alabama – ironically, birthplace of the highly successful ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ written by Harper Lee – and with the help of local believer, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he puts everything he has into the start-up of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organisation that specializes in providing free legal assistance to impoverished death-row inmates.
One of Bryan’s first cases is representing Walter ‘Johnny D’ McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black man who was charged with the murder of a young white woman and, with an unbelievable lack of evidence or fair trial, is sentenced to death in 1987.
Given the vague similarities to those portrayed in To Kill A Mockingbird, you would be forgiven for thinking that this film is merely a vague adaptation of the classic novel, unfortunately and rather shockingly, Walter’s story and those of many others is true. It is particularly jarring to hear the people’s pride in their town’s history, frequently recommending the Mockingbird Museum as a place to visit, book-ended by prejudicial comments and overt racism.
Whilst there is a cast chock full of talent; Rob Morgan, O’shea Jackson Jr, Brie Larson and Rafe Spall to name a few, the film predominantly revolves around the two central performances from Jordan and Foxx, both of whom, arguably, give career best performances, although so far only Foxx seems to be getting the award recognition they both deserve.
Admittedly, Foxx does deliver an emotionally charged performance but Jordan carries the entire film on his shoulders, and carries it well. Whilst Jordan has received a lot of praise in the past for his roles in Black Panther and Creed, for me, he as always kind of slipped under my radar, however it is fair to say that I am keen to see what more he has to deliver. Fun fact: After watching this film, Mark and I both think that he would offer an intriguing choice for the new James Bond, despite being an American. High praise indeed!! Anyway, back to the film at hand…
The inclusion of Eva Ansley, played by Brie Larson, is a little bit of an enigma for me. Obviously she was integral to supporting Bryan Stevenson as he started his Equal Justice Initiative, however her role was vastly underplayed and there was very little back story to help us understand her motivations. However, as much as I would have liked to have had the chance to explore the character some more, it would have detracted too much from the integral relationship between Stevenson and McMillian, so I understand why it was so limited.
Overall, Just Mercy is powerful, hard-hitting and rather uncomfortable to watch, and although we appear to have come a long way since the Civil Rights movement, it is clear that we still have a long, long way still to go and I hope that films like this help to open our eyes more. This is a definite must-watch and I hope that it gets the recognition it deserves this award season.