Starring Michael B Jordon, Jamie Fox, Brie Larson
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Rating: ** * (three stars)
Just Mercy is a film that cares about human beings on death row. It cares about justice. And like Portia, its young protagonist Bryan Stevenson believes that the quality of mercy is not strained.
Michael Jordon who plays the compassionate lawyer, lending a lot more than just a sympathetic shoulder to convicts on death row, has one of the kindest faces I’ve seen on screen. Jordon (weirdly cast as a villain in Black Panther) looks like a guy who cares about injustice. His idealism touches our hearts in a way that the rest of the film fails to.
For one, the theory that convicts awaiting death can be completely blameless victims is more disgusting than disturbing at a time when Nirbhaya’s barbaric killers are trying to wriggle their way out of their death sentence.
The wrongly convicted death-row prisoner in Just Mercy is played by the very accomplished Jamie Fox. He is a God-fearing law-abiding family man caught in a ghastly situation of injustice perpetrated by closet rednecks who sneer at our lawyer-hero addressing him as ‘Boy’ when he challenges their white supremacy.
As our hero, Bryan Stevenson tries to extricate Walter, he also meets other death-row inmates, at least one of them with a more interesting history and a more arresting presence (if you’ll pardon the pun) than Walter.
Where this well-meaning and revealing film succeeds is in showing the prejudice that exists just under the surface in every society. Even a hotshot Harvard lawyer like Bryan can’t escape the wrath of Caucasian superiority. In one sequence, Bryan is gleefully strip-searched before being allowed to visit prisoners. In another sequence, his car is stopped by a posse of aggressive cops and he’s roughly pulled out for phantom road violation.
Such moments accentuate the prejudice and bigotry in Alabama (the land of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, as we are repeatedly reminded in the film) around the 1990s. But has the situation for the African American changed in these trying times of Trump?
In the way, the narrative spotlights the perpetuity of prejudice Just Mercy reminded me of Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15. Both films aim for a dark, meditative mood as they search for justice for the downtrodden. Michael Jordan could well be Ayushmann Khurrana in Article 15 except for his skin pigmentation being shaded darker.
Just Mercy is sadly neither dark nor illuminating enough. Its hero’s irrefutable intrinsic idealism fails to match its calibre of execution.