Just Mercy ★★★★

Life writes the best stories. It also happens that life is capable of writing pretty solid courtroom dramas as well, which end up adapted into comparably solid movies. However, it is also a fact that life often lacks the edge we subconsciously require our entertainment to have which forces storytellers to perk their narratives up a bit, give it some rouge and apply a little lipstick in order to live up to the expectations of their audiences. The unfortunate by-product of this dynamic is quite paradoxical because whenever one consciously tries not to over-egg the pudding by messing with the story too much for dramatic effect, it may alienate the viewer by virtue of coming across as formulaic and predictable.

This is by far the most common accusation I have seen leveled at Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, an adaptation of a real-life story about a young, ambitious black lawyer (Michael B. Jordan) trying to free a black man (Jamie Foxx) wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In all fairness, it’s quite easy to dismiss this movie as a formulaic courtroom drama about institutional racial injustice still persisting in certain communities, full of impassioned speeches and familiar dramatic beats. That’s true. But life sometimes is formulaic and full of clichés. Lawyers give emotionally charged perorations because it’s part of their jobs and legal cases of black men being sent to death row simply as a result of being ‘born guilty’ all tend to look the same because the patterns of injustice and abuse are all too common in real life, too. That’s why I think it isn’t a great idea to look for novelty in a movie like this, especially when it seems to be its mission to underscore just how widespread the problem it tries to illuminate actually is. I believe a movie like this could benefit from the same kind of critical leniency we tend to exhibit towards genre movies where certain tropes are to be expected and certain dramatic beats are to be hit at predictable times. And then, all of a sudden, Just Mercy will be able to succeed on the back of its strong acting performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx and the bittersweet story of Walter ‘Johnny D.’ McMillan would unveil itself as a gentle reminder that well over a century after the abolition of slavery and the end of the fratricidal Civil War America still hasn’t evolved past its barbaric roots of prejudice and racial hatred.

In fact, this story also manages to underscore just how unbelievable and at times tragically (and banally) ironic it actually is. After all, this utter horror of institutional injustice took place in Monroeville, Alabama - a town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. This unfortunate coincidence that looks too good not to be seen as totally manufactured by Hollywood script doctors is also an open invitation to equate Bryan Stevenson’s character with Atticus Finch. It is perhaps possible that Sanderson himself – being young and full of righteous fury – maybe saw this case as an opportunity to live up to his literary hero’s legacy by retaining a cast-iron moral code and being able to rise above the multitude of instances of racial abuse he also suffered in pursuit of justice for Johnny D.

Therefore, familiar and formulaic as it is, Just Mercy is nonetheless a powerful story presented in a competent way and resting upon some truly solid acting performances. Although it swells in predictable ways, the film truly earns its violins by staying true to its mission statement and not attempting to hide behind the veneer of Hollywood gloss. It’s one of those films that openly manipulates the audience, at times in very familiar ways, but does so in an exceedingly honest and respectful way, which is more than enough to compel. Thus, I choose to see this courtroom drama about the real-life Atticus Finch and his quest to bring justice and freedom to the real Tom Robinson as a thoroughly successful Southern Gothic that plays on the viewer’s emotions like a little fiddle using the most basic narrative tools and relying on the innate strength of the story. In other words, this is this year’s Lion.

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