Characters in “Just Mercy” make a point of referencing “To Kill a Mockingbird” when a Harvard graduate comes to town to help men on death row.
But it’s clear there’s not a lingering love for Atticus Finch or men of his ilk. Racism is still a factor – and a hurdle for Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Like “Marshall” and “On the Basis of Sex,” “Mercy” doesn’t tackle the man’s entire career, but a slice of it.
Moving to Alabama (despite his family’s protests), he takes the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a laborer who’s imprisoned for killing a white girl. While he has plenty of witnesses who say he couldn’t have done it, he’s still in prison.
With the help of a local woman (Brie Larson) willing to see justice prevail, he digs into the research and appears to have a strong case. But – and here’s where the “Mockingbird” references bear fruit – folks aren’t so quick to overturn their long-held beliefs.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton follows the template for films like these, but has a stealth player in Foxx.
Able to help friends on death row, he becomes more than just another statistic. He’s hopeful, too, that the appeal will work, but he knows better.
“Just Mercy” has its day in court, but it’s Stevenson’s tenacity that keeps it going and brings about an inspirational resolution.
Jordan makes the crusading attorney a quiet beacon; Larson complements him nicely as a woman who isn’t going to yield to popular opinion. Together, they’re a “Norma Rae” team, fighting for those who can’t.
Thankfully, they didn’t ignore these more interesting roles when they joined the Marvel universe. Although roles in those films probably net them bigger paychecks, “Just Mercy” gives them grist for the acting mill. Larson, in particular, doesn’t waste any of the moments she’s on screen.
Late in the disclosure phase of the film, Tim Blake Nelson turns up as one of those quirky characters who have essential information. He plays the man’s idiosyncrasies like a violin, giving Jordan notes he can share.
“Just Mercy” hits its highs with Foxx, who’s more than willing to let Jordan grab the spotlight. When Cretton shows what happened to the real characters, the casting choices are justified. Both actors do justice to the men they play.
While this isn't a new take on an old story, it is a reminder there are plenty of lives to chronicle -- ones that don't always grab headlines or prompt social media posts that go viral.