Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall

Written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham

Based on the book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Produced by Gil Netter, Asher Goldstein and Michael B. Jordan

Cinematography by Brett Pawlak

Edited by Nat Sanders

Music by Joel P. West

“Just Mercy,” the inspiring, uplifting true story of heroic lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who valiantly, bravely took a big gamble, travelled to the heart of racist hellscapes in Alabama, fought a contingent of corrupt, criminal and backwards white cracker redneck yahoos in law enforcement, politics and the judicial system—all racist, stupid morons and idiots—and through determined hard work, dedication, legal intelligence, general intelligence and courage and bravery, subsequently won retrials, freedom and redemption for scores of people who were criminally wrongly charged, convicted and imprisoned for various crimes and for others who were also wrongly charged and convicted and also wrongly sentenced to death, is an instant-classic, above-average, highly-recommended film that should be everyone’s first great film to see in 2020.

Although “Just Mercy” was released for a limited run at the end of December, 2019, this beautiful, intelligent, exceptionally well-made, thoughtful, thought-provoking drama opens in wide release on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Again, moviegoers who venture out and see this film will be starting their new moviegoing year by simply seeing one of the best films released in 2020. Yes, “Just Mercy” is that exception. Simply go see this film—you will rejoice in this film’s story, dialogue, direction, acting, production value, insight, morals, messages, themes, points and its pacing, timing and editing—the latter points especially notable in a film that is entirely talk- and dialogue-based. But “Just Mercy,” of course, being such a well-made, intelligent film, is never boring, never stilted, and never less than suspenseful, gripping, stirring, rousing and entertaining, albeit entertaining on a higher level of smarts than most films released during the year. Again, the film is that good.
“Just Mercy” tells the true-life, very real story of Bryan Stevenson, who, as a young, dedicated and hungry young Harvard-educated lawyer, takes a chance and travels to the heart of racist, backwards Alabama–and, let’s face it, that state continually is and has been simply one of the worst states in terms of racism, bigotry, prejudice, ignorance and hatred toward anyone who doesn’t happen to be white, even today in 2020—and, using federal government grant money, sets up the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a grassroots criminal justice organization dedicated to correcting law enforcement, public safety, justice, judicial, political and government criminality, corruption, abuses, stupidity and racism. As noted, along the way—and this is all a true story—Stevenson and his dedicated staff—eventually assisted by supporters across the country who recognized the great work that Stevension, his staff and EJI were doing—won those aforementioned retrials, dismissal of charges, overturning of convictions, releases from jail and even dismissals of the death penalty for hundreds of people. That’s hundreds of people freed from flat-out illegal, corrupt and criminal charges, convictions, sentences and imprisonments.
And Stevenson and his staff accomplished all of this within the last thirty years—and they’re still accomplishing this today, in 2020—amid constant pushback, abuse, threats, death threats, institutional corruption at all levels in Alabama, and other setbacks. It’s a truly true-life story of dedication, hard work, redemption, heroism, and legal, civic, community, cultural, judicial and political victories won amid some of the most hard-fought legal battles of the last thirty years. If it seems too good to be true, well it is true, and it is good—and it is something worth noting and worth celebrating. And it’s something worth telling in a classy, stylish, insightful film, and that’s exactly what director Destin Daniel Cretton, screenwriters Cretton and Andrew Lanham and his cast and crew have accomplished.
The central focus of “Just Mercy” is Stevenson’s efforts to win the release from prison—and from death row–of wrongly-charged, wrongly-convicted, wrongly-imprisoned and wrongly-sentenced-to-death inmate Walter McMillian in Alabama. From the first few days and weeks that Stevenson arrives in Alabama, he realizes from just simple evidence, testimony, facts and statements—all contrived, convoluted, made-up, forced and flat-out wrong—that McMillian is innocent of the charges against him. Stevenson takes McMillian’s case and fights hard to get a new trial, get the charges dropped and get McMillian off of death row and even freed from jail. Along the way, he takes other inmates’ cases, at various levels of the criminal justice and judicial system, and fights, again, to overturn flat-out wrong charges, convictions and sentences.

Stevenson embarks on that heroic quest to prove McMillian’s innocence, uncovering hidden evidence, exposing not-so-hidden inconsistencies in the cases wrongly and criminally brought by local law enforcement and prosecutors—all of whom were racist, criminal and corrupt good ol’ boys doing all they could to keep alive racism, bigotry, white supremacy, ignorance and hatred—and even interviewing people involved in the original case who were clearly bribed, threatened, manipulated and coerced to testify and make statements against McMillian that were simply lies. Lies that led the wrongful conviction of an innocent and a subsequent sentence of death. Against an innocent man.
The power—and horror—of this obvious racism, corruption, criminality and injustice throughout Alabama and Stevenson’s dogged, determined and devoted pursuit of the facts, the truth and freedom for McMillian and other inmates provides the continual suspense, drama, conflict and tension in the film. Michael B. Jordan is exceptional as Stevenson and turns in a level-headed, grounded, intelligent portrayal that can bring to mind Sidney Poitier’s equally-memorable portrayal of investigator Mr. Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night;” Jamie Foxx turns in yet another award-winning, controlled, understated—and thoroughly moving, highly emotional—performance as McMillian; Brie Larson portrays Stevenson’s EJI assistant Eva Ansley—a hero, too—with similar grounded, understated, realistic presence and passion, but all the while played with needed down-home realism; Tim Blake Nelson brings his unique presence, characterization, talent and skill to life yet again as a prisoner who originally lied to authorities as part of the early investigation of the murder that McMillian was wrongly charged for; and an equally talented cast of other lead and supporting actors are all performing at the same high level.

Director Cretton and co-screenwriter Lanham smartly realized that they didn’t need to dumbly, superficially fluff up the story, lines, script, dialogue and actions because, simply, what truly happened with Stevenson, Ansley and their work in real life provided all the drama that was needed in the script, story, story development, message and direction of the film! Often, if a true-life story is exceptional enough, smart filmmakers realize that they don’t have to or need to over-state the case—just use your skills to present the story in a smart, grounded, entertaining manner.

That, of course, is what’s been done so well in scores of true-life films in recent years. It’s been a great era for true-life films. There are scores to mention, but recent years have brought such excellent true-life films as “Green Book,” “Vice,” “The Big Short,” “Spotlight,” “The Post,” “Tolkien,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “42,” “Marshall,” “Rocketman” “Hidden Figures” and, well, so many others! “Just Mercy joins this excellent list.
The film is based on Stevenson’s autobiography, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Cretton and Lanham, as noted, base most of the film version on true-life events, with some small dramatization, but most of what occurs in the film is what actually occurred in real life. Again, the story is exceptional enough that Cretton, Lanham and the cast and crew stayed loyal to the facts and let the real story take over and tell the story. Although the film is dialogue- and talk-oriented, “Just Mercy” remains well-paced, well-timed and well-edited to keep the story, plot, characters constantly moving forward, and the film is always watchable.

There is simply no better way to start off the filmgoing year than to head out to the theaters this weekend and see “Just Mercy.” Filmgoers will walk out of the theaters moved, uplifted, positive, optimistic (in a bittersweet manner, of course, due to the subject matter), and hopeful and happy that despite all of the ills and ails and problems and criminality and corruption too prevalent in the world, there indeed are hard-working, dedicated and intelligent heroes such as Stevenson and Ansley who are, every day, working on behalf of people, actually freeing people from that criminality and corruption, and, legal motion by legal motion, giving wrongly-charged people a new chance at life, a new start, a new beginning, and a new hope for the future. No matter what the headlines, no matter what the cold winter weather presents, watching and noting and honoring the very real heroic work done by Stevenson and Ansley and others will put a spring mood, a spring feeling and a spring step in your day. “Just Mercy” the film does indeed offer filmgoers just mercy at the movies.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.