Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the last film of 2019 that completes a trend of this past year. That trend is stories about men who are falsely accused of crimes. Some, if not most, involve those men being convicted and going to prison. Those stories on both the big and small screen include If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), When They See Us (2019), Trial By Fire (2019), Brian Banks (2019), Richard Jewell (2019) and Clemency (2019). With the exception of a couple, most have been about African-American men. Black men getting unfair treatment in the criminal justice system isn’t a new topic in media. Marshall (2017) was a recent example. A classic example though is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which this film references. Of all the recent titles in this vein, this film, directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle and Short Term 12), is one of the most entertaining and triumphant of them all.
It’s based on the life of Bryan Stevenson, a black man from Milton, Delaware. Stevenson wrote his 2014 memoir called Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. It focused on Stevenson founding the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in the early 90’s. The EJI specifically guaranteed a defense for anyone on death row, as Alabama was the only state that didn’t provide legal assistance to people sentenced to capital punishment. Alabama also had the highest per capita rate of death penalty sentencing. EJI also sought to alleviate the bias with regard to death penalty sentencing, biases based on race or economic status.
Michael B. Jordan (Creed and Black Panther) stars as Bryan Stevenson, a young man who leaves his home in Sussex County, Delaware, graduates from Harvard University and is put on his path of criminal justice by the Southern Center for Human Rights. He starts out working in Georgia. He is taken aback when he finds a man around his age or younger on death row. He is then assigned cases in Alabama in the late 80’s. His family, specifically his mother, warns him of the danger he’s heading toward. She’s not specific, but it’s obvious that both she and he know about the legacy of Jim Crow and how it could hurt him. Yet, Bryan is strong and resolute about doing this work.
Jamie Foxx (Ray and Collateral) co-stars as Walter McMillian, aka Johnny D, a black man working as a lumberjack in Monroeville a rural town in southern Alabama. In 1987, he was arrested for murdering a white woman who was shot and killed nearly a year prior. He is railroaded in a way that is particularly egregious and he’s convicted very quickly and put on death row even more quickly. He makes numerous appeals, which are turned down. When Bryan visits him, he’s skeptical that Bryan will be able to overcome the obvious racism that has landed him behind bars. Foxx, however, imbues Johnny D with such humor and grace that endears you to him instantly.
The majority of Foxx’s scenes are opposite Jordan as the two meet in prison. A lot include Foxx alone in his cell. Foxx does make great use of those limited scenes. Foxx is a performer that is served well in his freedom. Yet, he won his Academy Award for playing Ray Charles, a man with a physical limitation. It’s not the same, but Foxx’s character here also has a physical limitation. He’s locked up in death row. However, he is able to shine and still be extremely charming.
Brie Larson (Captain Marvel and Short Term 12) also co-stars as Eva Ansley, the young wife and mother who helps Bryan to establish EJI. She helps him to find office space to do his work, which initially begins as her kitchen table. Later, she’s able to get him a separate building. She’s tough and scrappy, but has to be in order to get anything in Alabama. Otherwise, she works as a legal secretary and a confidant for Bryan to share in his thoughts and frustrations. She becomes a good friend to Bryan as well.
Cretton is able to walk us through the work that Bryan has to do in order to get Johnny D off death row. Of course, a lot of that work is paperwork, but he doesn’t bog us down with too much of that. A lot of the work involves engaging with people. First, it’s Johnny D’s family who aren’t just on the sidelines but who actually factor into Johnny D’s innocence. Second, it’s the people who were responsible for Johnny D’s actual conviction, including the sheriff and district attorney, as well as the witness who was the key piece to Johnny D’s conviction.
That witness is a man named Ralph Myers, played by Tim Blake Nelson (Watchmen and O Brother, Where Art Thou). He’s an actual criminal, unlike Johnny D, who gets a deal to lesson his sentence if he testifies against Johnny D. At first, he seems like a sleaze who likes Sunkist soda and Jujyfruit candy. Yet, when the layers are pulled back, it’s revealed that he’s a man suffering from PTSD in a sense. His trauma stems from a horrendous burning.
It’s in this small story line that proves why this film succeeds even in its bigger story line. It takes this man who could be dismissed as just a sleazy criminal and humanizes him. The film certainly does so for Johnny D. Yet, he’s not the only person on death row who gets humanized. Rob Morgan (Mudbound and Daredevil) plays Herbert Richardson, a death row inmate who also suffered from PTSD and other mental problems as a result of his time in the Vietnam War. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (Straight Outta Compton and Den of Thieves) plays Anthony Ray Hinton, another death row inmate who has an optimism and charm to him that rivals that of Johnny D. The interactions between him and the others are great, even in their brief moments.
Lastly, I have to circle back to Jordan’s performance. Like any film made about a lawyer, this one builds to a courtroom scene that has Jordan carrying the bulk of the load. It’s interesting that this film references To Kill a Mockingbird because Jordan does have a vibe that is very much akin to Gregory Peck who played the iconic Atticus Finch. There have been a ton of legal dramas since that 1962 classic. There have been many dramas that take on the same issues as To Kill a Mockingbird. This is the first time, though, that I have felt that we have a new Atticus Finch or an Atticus Finch for my generation or an Atticus Finch for the 21st century.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, including racial epithets.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 16 mins.
In select cities, nationwide on Jan. 10.