Before anyone starts accusing me of judging Just Mercy from a partisan political angle, let me point out two things: 1) I never judge movies based on politics, and 2) I happen to agree with the politics of Just Mercy.
Those who dedicate their lives to challenging the justice system — who tirelessly fight to ensure that the State is not imprisoning or executing the innocent — are heroes in my book. While I’m in favor of capital punishment, I’m also in favor of an appeals system that makes damn sure there are no mistakes. You don’t hear me running around wondering why we’re not executing people faster. No, sir. I have zero faith in our government, especially the majority of mercenary losers who populate it. And if we’re going to give the government the power to take away someone’s rights, all of their personal freedom and sometimes their lives, that system needs to be relentlessly challenged.
God bless defense attorneys.
God bless appeals attorneys.
God bless the real-life hero of Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, who is doing the Lord’s work.
Unfortunately, none of that can change the fact that Just Mercy is a terrible movie.
Set around 1990, Just Mercy is based on the true story of how Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) used his freshly-minted Harvard law degree to represent a group of death row inmates in Alabama, specifically Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who really is innocent.
To begin with, as someone who has lived in a small town in the south since 1993, and who is also in an interracial marriage, I found the depiction of the south ludicrous. If it wasn’t for the wider ties and lack of crew-cuts, you would think you were watching Mississippi Burning 2. Just a few years prior to O.J. Simpson’s acquittal, we’re supposed to believe black people are kept out of a courtroom so only the white people are allowed to sit? That white boys in pick-up trucks phone in bomb threats and drive by in slow-motion to glare at the noble black folk? That the sheriff and his men embrace the Rebel Flag and use the N-word in the presence of Harvard-trained defense attorneys?
Okay, it’s a true story, so maybe all that happened. But it’s handled with such spoon-fed, heavy-handed pomposity, you can’t help but roll your eyes, especially when a racist German Sheppard tries to attack a black woman.
And then there’s all the monologues. Man alive. There are no characters here. Just symbols. Stevenson has no emotional inner-life. He’s just a savior. His sponsor, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), has no emotional inner-life. She’s just a good, liberal white lady. Jamie Foxx does what he can, and is by far the best thing here. But like everyone else, he speaks in monologues, in Oscar-bait speeches. After a while, you’re watching a self-parody.
Except for the racist white people, everyone is so gosh-darned earnest and virtuous, including everyone on death row. No joke: according to Just Mercy, everyone on death row is noble and decent, and either completely innocent or noble and decent enough to admit their guilt. There’s not a single death row inmate who acts like a real person, much less a criminal or murderer. They’re all Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption: Clean prison cells. Pure minds. Filled with warmth, selfless humanity, humor, and bottomless wisdom.
Gimme a fucking break.
This isn’t a movie-movie. This is a TV movie, an afterschool special, so simplistic and manipulative…
It also backfires on itself.
Obviously the movie opposes the death penalty — you know, even as it proves the system works. Hey, if the system works in racist Alabama, it must work everywhere.
The movie is also hypocritical. It closes by telling us a white person probably killed the girl McMillian’s accused of killing. Probably. So to hammer its point home with the hammiest of hammy hands, Just Mercy hurls a murder accusation it’s not sure of.
Finally, what about the victims?
We’re supposed to feel terrible for the man who admits to his crime (he suffers PTSD) but what about the girl he killed?
If you want to see a movie for grownups about the death penalty, see Dead Man Walking (1995), which was made by three of the most left-wing people ever: Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Sean Penn. Yes, the movie opposes the death penalty but it does so without shying away from the reality that almost all the people on death row are not only guilty as hell, but monsters who committed the most heinous crimes imaginable.
Unlike Just Mercy, Dead Man Walking also has enough courage in its point of view, and enough human decency, to spend time with the victim’s family, to allow them to have their say about their desperate need for closure and justice, to explain how they’re torn apart by these endless (but necessary) appeals.
Dead Man Walking is a brilliant and unpretentious experience (and one of my all-time favorites); the antithesis of Just Mercy, which is simplistic, formulaic, patronizing, pompous, and horribly photographed to boot.