The movie of the moment
Just Mercy (2019): World-renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson works to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner.
Editor's Note: For the month of June, Just Mercy is available to stream for free on all major platforms. Learn more here.
How does an ordinary person rise to an extraordinary moment? That's the question I've been asking myself for the past few days. Ever since the horrific video of George Floyd's tragic (and avoidable) death emerged, I have been grappling with what I, a straight, privileged, white man, can do in a moment like this. I think that's a universal question in this moment. There are some obvious answers: you can donate to a worthy cause, (like the Equal Justice Initiative) protest with organizations like Black Lives Matter, and educate yourself on the daily, systemic struggled of communities that don't look like yourself. (Check out this link for more on that.)
One of those avenues for self-education is film. I have written about film on this blog for nearly 7 years. And, I must admit, I've let my writings go by the wayside during the coronavirus pandemic. Writing about film has felt small. It's felt unimportant while we try and grapple with the incalculable loss of over a hundred thousand American lives, (which came and went while the leader of the free world feuded with Twitter) and many thousands more across the globe. But. Film can also be an avenue for education. And I, an ordinary man looking at an extraordinary moment in our nation's history, owe it to the people less fortunate than me, the people who are condemned and disadvantaged solely because of the color of their skin, I owe it to them to use every platform at my disposal to amplify their struggles. So, even though it's been months since my last review, let's dust off the ol' typewriter and talk about Just Mercy.
Just Mercy is the latest film from Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) and is the true story of Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and portrayed by the infectiously charismatic Michael B. Jordan) as he works to free wrongfully convicted death row inmates in Alabama. The film’s story is naturally dramatic, but is amplified by the culture of this moment. To see the oppression these men face laid bare - Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on the testimony of a single white man, who himself was simultaneously on trial for unrelated charges - while we chant, “I can’t breathe,” in the streets today, makes the events and sequencing of this film that much more emotional. This is the movie of the moment, and you truly owe it to yourself to watch it.
Not only is this the movie of the moment to highlight the ingrained intolerance of black people in our judicial system, which you see in every moment of the powerful story, Just Mercy’s message on capital punishment, and the barbarism it represents, is equally as dramatic. There is an extended sequence around the halfway point surrounding a death row inmate that is sent to the electric chair that made me ball. I honestly can’t remember the last time I cried that hard during a film. The empathy of this sequence that Destin Daniel Cretton was able to convey, the humanity and emotional state of a man in his final moments before being executed, was incredible. Regardless of what that man did or did not do that led him to death row, he was still a human being, and to see him put to death in such an archaic way…. It tore me apart.
That said, the film is not perfect. I took issue with Michael B. Jordan’s performance in particular. I have loved Michael B. Jordan from the first moment I saw him on screen, (shoutout to Chronicle!) but this performance felt a little over-the-top. The story as a whole is an intimate piece of storytelling, yet it felt like Michael B. Jordan was attempting his best Captain America impression. It was a little much. That said, Jamie Foxx’s performance was perfect for the moment - quiet and subdued, yet intelligent and powerful. Additionally, Eva Ansley’s (portrayed by Brie Larson) character was largely inconsequential to the overall film, despite being integral to the real life narrative. It's a real shame because I’m sure she was the recipient of a significant amount of misogyny, being a female lawyer in Alabama, and her ability to rise above that is truly powerful. Not to mention the fact that she was the second-in-command to a black lawyer looking to instigate some semblance of racial tolerance in the deep south….. That sounds like a pretty interesting story to me, in and of itself. But, I’ll save those hopes for the sequel.
In short, this film is a magnificent, powerful, and frustrating piece of nonfiction. It is essential viewing for white viewers and should be shown in classrooms for educational purposes in the future. As we try and educate ourselves on how to be anti-racist now and in the future, watching a film like this will be a tremendous help to furthering that cause. Don’t miss it.
My Number: 8/10
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