Escape from Death Row

Anti-racism courtroom drama Just Mercy thrives on its characters.

It’s a pleasure, after all the high-profile, much-ballyhooed holiday releases, to get wrapped up in such a thoughtfully conceived, well written, stirringly presented display of character acting as Just Mercy. “Just,” as in justified or morally right, not as in “merely.”

Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s true-story-based drama about a Black man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1987 Alabama, and a Black northern lawyer’s efforts to free him from death row, fits squarely into the well-worn “social problem” file. But the screen presence of Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and the rest of Cretton’s cast catapult the arguably routine “uplifting social message” scenario — screenplay by the director and Andrew Lanham, from the book by Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer in question — into its own sphere far above the standard courtroom remedial situation. Just Mercy is worth watching for its own sake. The triumph of justice is an extra added attraction.

Walter McMillian, aka Johnny D (played by Foxx), gets picked up by the police shortly after the body of a white teenage girl is found dead on a Monroeville, Alabama sidewalk. To the county sheriff (Michael Harding) and the district attorney (Rafe Spall), Johnny D fits the profile. Everybody in town knows he’s been seeing a white woman on the side — even his wife (Karan Kendrick). But the only evidence in the murder case is circumstantial, and the prosecution’s chief witness appears to be a lying jailbird. Johnny gets convicted anyway, and the judge overrules the jury’s recommendation of life and sentences Johnny to die in the electric chair. The whole business stinks, but the Black community feels powerless — that’s just the way things are done down here.

And yet the case attracts the interest of Stevenson (Jordan), a Harvard-educated African-American lawyer from Delaware, who moves South and takes the case on appeal, pro bono, arguing that Johnny D was railroaded onto death row on perjured testimony. Everyone from the white establishment to the condemned man himself thinks the uppity Northern attorney is wasting his time (even Johnny mocks him for “talkin’ all white”), but Stevenson digs in and listens to a fascinating gallery of characters, including the cops who pull him over on general principle.

Director Cretton — he made the hardscrabble family drama The Glass Castle with Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson — has a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense touch with the Deep South milieu, but the casting is what really carries the load. Jordan is appropriately upstanding in the savior/stranger role. Foxx is terrific as Johnny, who never expects he’ll do anything but fry, but comes to believe in his lawyer the same way we do. Actors Kendrick, Harding, Spall (son of English actor Timothy Spall), and Lindsay Ayliffe and Steve Coulter (as the two judges) bring the right amount of “y’all,” but it’s veteran portrayer-of-country-bumpkins Tim Blake Nelson, a Coen Bros. regular, who makes off with the supporting honors as bogus witness Ralph Myers, the crooked-mouthed jailhouse snitch with the sideways walk who would have strapped Johnny into the hot seat if Stevenson didn’t squeeze the truth out of him.

To put Johnny D’s ordeal in perspective, we are made aware that Stevenson’s non-profit Equal Justice Initiative was founded close to the Alabama River landing where once upon a time, slaves were unloaded to be sold. Just Mercy may not make us forget all about In the Heat of the Night, but it’s a sharp-edged reminder that even though people like Stevenson continue to step up and fight against it, racism is one of this country’s oldest and most tenacious products.

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