Watch the trailer for Just Mercy:
After that, the full movie’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, because you’ve seen too many superior versions too many times before.
Heck, too many inferior versions exist. In fact, one was released earlier this year: The Best of Enemies.
Both suffer from a lot of the same problems, including one detailed in my Best of Enemies write-up: the end-credit text — apparently mandatory for all movies based on true stories — suggests a story more compelling than the focus of the last TWO HOURS AND TWENTY MINUTES:
Jamie Foxx’s character’s stint on death row “weighed on him” for the remainder of his life. I want to watch that movie; how does an innocent victim even attempt to move on — or not — from a false imprisonment, no matter how brief his stay behind bars?
This fertile terrain’s riper for tilling, because it hasn’t been farmed barren, unlike Just Mercy‘s perversion-of-American-justice narrative. Artists should refuse to let the prison industrial complex out of their sights until equality under the law is shared by all, but hitting mostly similar notes as To Kill a Mockingbird — and its infinite copycats — does not do right by these noble aims.
Both Just Mercy and The Best of Enemies (each boast hamstrung casts — blinded by Oscars gold in their eyes? — boxed in by the confines of convention; Jamie Foxx’s talent has been denied a career to match) ostensibly serve as sorts of historical correctives to Hollywood’s lineage of telling these stories by centering the black characters, but the shallow depictions of their perspectives fail to significantly alter the familiar motions the movie goes through; it feels like screenplays structured around court cases basically write themselves at this point. And even though Michael B. Jordan plays a real person — Bryan Stevenson, the author of the memoir which inspired the movie — his character seems like nothing more than an empty cipher whose introductory immersion into this world conveniently doubles for the audience’s.
Instead of being a retread of To Kill a Mockingbird, Just Mercy could’ve entered into a direct conversation with its legacy. The movie takes place in Alabama’s Monroeville, Harper Lee’s hometown commonly understood to be the setting of her novel. The white locals in Just Mercy are clearly proud of this heritage, despite their rejection of Atticus Finch’s ideals, perfect fodder for a zeitgeisty dissection of politics in art. And then there’s the visual connections drawn between the Greco-Roman pillars that adorn American courthouses and their appearance on plantation porches as well, a potent representation of the justice America projects and the unjust it protects.
Hey look, a few more interesting ideas Just Mercy waves at on its plot-forward way…