by Theo Sloan
December 17, 2021
Just Mercy is a 2019 biopic about the incredible story of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard Law School graduate, who worked in Alabama to pardon wrongly convicted death row prisoners and went on to start the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is incredible, and his list of accomplishments is vast. Just Mercy tells the story of his efforts to get one man—Walter McMillan—off death row, but that truly is the tip of an enormous and impressive iceberg. In fact, I’m linking the Wikipedia article about him, and I encourage you to go give it a look, because he is absolutely worth learning about.
Normally in these reviews, I try to be a little coy about what my opinions are, but I’m not going to do this here. I think Just Mercy is a masterpiece, and I’m going to tell you why. This will not be a review with two sections, one for positives and one for negatives; rather, this will be a long rant about why I think Just Mercy is a fantastic drama and why you should watch it.
The first thing I’d like to discuss is the acting, because it is straight up amazing from the beginning to the end. This film’s three main stars are Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson, and all three of them give the best performances I have ever seen them give. To be fair, I have not watched every movie that these extremely talented and prolific actors have been in, but I’ve seen a fair number, and Just Mercy blows all of them out of the water.
Brie Larson is probably the least interesting to talk about here. She’s just very good in this film, as I’ve come to expect from an actress of her talent and caliber. There’s one outstanding scene near the beginning in which she does a fantastic job expressing panic and terror, but other than that, she’s just very good. I say “just” because there’s less to unpack with her performance than there is with the other two. Please do not mistake this as me being dismissive of her or her performance in this movie. She is incredibly talented, and she does a genuinely great job at playing Eva Ansley, who co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative with Stevenson.
Michael B. Jordan is the film’s lead. He plays Bryan Stevenson, and he knocks it out of the park. He spends a lot of time in this film acting with just his facial expressions. A single look from him can speak volumes about what his character is thinking and feeling, and I think that that is one of the greatest things an actor can do. He has to convey so many different emotions throughout the duration of the movie, and he shifts among them flawlessly. I honestly cannot think of a single moment throughout the film when I wasn’t completely sucked into his character and the story he conveys through his performance.
However, this movie’s absolute standout performance comes from Jamie Foxx as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian. It is hard to put into words how powerful I found his performance to be. Just think about everything I said about Michael B. Jordan, and then think about what it means that Jamie Foxx did an even better job than he does. Foxx is that good. I’ll just leave it at that. Watch the movie to fully understand what I’m saying.
I also need to give a brief mention to Rob Morgan, who gives another brilliant performance as Herbert Richardson, another death row prisoner. He’s not nearly as present in the film as Foxx and Jordan are, but he makes every little moment count. There is a scene near the middle of the movie, which is about four minutes of him just acting with his face, and that, combined with literally everything else about the scene—the framing, the score, the writing, the content—brought me to tears. It is hard to put into words how much that scene resonated with me, but trust me when I say that it takes a fair amount to make me cry during a movie. That scene was just amazing.
In fact, while we’re here, I need to give a quick shout-out to the score, because not only is it incredible, but the way that the score is used is equally well done, not only during that one scene with Morgan, but throughout the rest of the movie as well. I tip my hat to Joel P. West, who did a really outstanding job here.
Next up, I think it’s important to talk about the writing. The script is very good. The dialogue is tightly written and hard-hitting, and the story, while a tad generic by genre standards, is completely redeemed in my eyes because it’s based on a true story, and a very important one at that. A lot of critics apparently docked points from this movie for having the structure of a slightly generic, if superbly written, legal drama, but I just don’t see that as being a negative. It’s a true story. Should they have changed it to make it less “predictable”? Of course not! That critique doesn’t work for me, and I never found myself objecting to the story, regardless of its “originality,” because I was sufficiently impressed by the frankly incredible true story that I was experiencing.
Lastly, I think it’s worth mentioning that the cinematography in this movie is shockingly good for a biopic legal drama. There’s a lot of very interesting establishing shots and transitions, and there’s one segment that uses a television in a very engaging way. That scene that made me cry had top notch cinematography as well.
Just Mercy is an emotionally resonant legal drama based on a true story about an incredibly inspiring person. It has top-notch writing, even better acting, and surprisingly memorable cinematography. I found myself absolutely hooked from the moment I started watching to the moment the credits began to roll, and I think I would be doing this film an absolute disservice if I gave it anything less than a 10/10.