Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx Give Nuanced Performances in Powerful Legal Drama ‘Just Mercy’

The inspiring true story of one lawyer’s quest for justice is told in legal drama “Just Mercy.” Michael B. Jordan gives a subtle yet powerful performance as Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and social justice advocate who founded the non-profit organization Equal Justice Initiative. This story begins while he’s still a law student at Harvard, assisting a lawyer working for death row inmates. He quickly realizes that himself and the young African American men awaiting execution aren’t all that different. Determined to make a difference, he heads to Alabama after graduation, despite some misgivings from his family. This idealistic young man from Delaware is put to the test when he agrees to defend one Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx, who also gives a subtle and nuanced performance), better known as Johnny D., a black tree cutter who has been falsely convicted of killing a young white woman.

“Just Mercy” treads a lot of familiar territory. An African-American is accused of a crime and convicted based on a flimsy case by the prosecution. In the trial the we never see on screen, their star witness was a white felon, Ralph Myers (a terrific Tim Blake Nelson) whose testimony, we learn, was not only coerced, but also apparently trumped a number of law-abiding black citizens who had an alibi for Johnny D. Law enforcement, of course, has an agenda, and the racial element intensifies the situation. The predominantly white police force and correctional officers hide behind their badgers as they inflict cruelty on those under their custody. One man, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), who made a bomb that killed someone, is denied proper mental health care, even though he suffers from PTSD as a result of his service in Vietnam.

Brie Larson co-stars as Eva Ansley, Bryan’s white assistant who at one point gets a bomb threat from an anonymous man who calls her up and uses the n-word. What separates “Just Mercy” from a slew of recent films dealing with civil rights issues in the South is the fact that it is not set in the fifties or sixties, but in the eighties and early nineties; all of this went down in most of our lifetimes. We almost forget this up until the point Bryan goes on the television news program “60 Minutes” to make the public aware of his client’s plight. 

As the credit roles, we learn that for every nine people executed, there is one inmate on death row who has been proven to be innocent, a shocking figure. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who co-wrote the screenplay based off of Stevenson’s own book, wisely narrows his focus on Johnny D.’s case, letting him represent all those who were wrongfully imprisoned for capital crimes, or even worse. The grace and determination of Bryan and Eva, especially Bryan, is inspirational. Jordan plays him as a mostly even-keeled, extraordinarily patient man, whose willingness to knock on doors and reason with people, even Ralph, as well as Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), a white prosecutor with his own agenda, pays off in a big way. Bryan’s success is even more impressive considering that he began his work in the days before DNA testing was used to overturn convictions. 

As great as Jordan is, some of the best scenes are the one that just involve Johnny D., Herbert, and a third death row inmate, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) talking to each other from their cells, offering encouragement in their darkest hours. Jackson, who broke through playing his own father in “Straight Outta Compton,” continues to prove himself as a versatile performer, while Foxx gives one of his best performances in years as a man with great inner peace despite what life has thrown at him.

Just Mercy” opens Dec. 25 in select cities, Jan. 10 nationwide.