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It is always sobering to watch films about injustice in the judicial system, particularly when the "long time ago" they depict is only a couple decades ago, specifically 1986, the year I was born. I wanted the events of Just Mercy to be a long time ago, particularly since they are based on the true story of Walter McMillian, a black man wrongfully convicted of murder based on little physical evidence and untruthful testimony. He relies on a young defense attorney, Bryan Stevenson, to appeal that conviction against incredible odds. Destin Daniel Cretton's film is based on Stevenson's memoir, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption," and, while it occasionally suffers from the melodramatic pits of a Lifetime TV drama, Just Mercy is well acted and tells a sobering story.
Harvard Law School graduate Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) founds with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to prisoners who may not have received appropriate legal representation at trial. He meets several death row inmates at an Alabama prison, including Walter "Johnny D." McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was convicted in 1986 of murdering Ronda Morrison, an eighteen-year-old white woman who worked at a dry cleaner and with whom McMillian was not acquainted. Despite a strong alibi - McMillian was at a fish fry with dozens of witnesses, including a law enforcement officer - he was arrested by a newly elected sheriff desperate to find a suspect. McMillian was immediately sent to death row pending trial, an unheard-of maneuver, and ultimately saw his case joined with that of habitual felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who ultimately testified against McMillian to reduce his own sentence.
Among the shocking details explored in Just Mercy are that this atrocious miscarriage of justice occurred just 34 years ago, and that McMillian was basically convicted without a shred of evidence. Further research into the real-life case reveals the numerous failed appeals and the stunning move by the trial-court judge, who sentenced McMillian to death despite the jury's recommendation of life in prison. The prisoner is initially skeptical of Stevenson, having settled into a life behind bars he did not earn, and tells him that numerous lawyers before him made empty promises to him and his family. Stevenson begins investigating the case, and meets with the area's new district attorney, Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), who had previously been a public defender. Chapman deems McMillian to be guilty, though his delivery is noticeably half-hearted, and Chapman becomes difficult to work with as Stevenson begins making more ground on the case.
There are points where Just Mercy feels a lot like a made-for-television drama, and the film occasionally strays too far from its main characters. Cretton takes a detour to follow an admittedly guilty prisoner toward execution, itself a powerful moment, but I am not sure the narrative really needed to lift its focus from Stevenson and McMillian, who at times seems little more than a caricature of an innocent man convicted. That said, both Jordan and Foxx provide strong performances, and only Larson is largely relegated to the background in a totally underwritten role. There are also points where the courtroom proceedings ring false, though I suspect those outside the legal profession will not notice. Better are conversations between Stevenson and McMillian's family, who reveal just how terrible the case was against their loved one. Just Mercy tells a powerful story of injustice that is all the more sobering considering this occurred less than four decades ago. It is the kind of injustice I pray is not repeated.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image from Warner Brothers is crisp and clear, with good fine-object detail and object texture. The color palette leans orange and teal, and the transfer handles the often-pedestrian settings like courtrooms, house interiors and drab offices with ease. Skin tones are accurate, black levels inky, and shadow detail is largely impressive. I noticed only a couple of softer shots, and compression artifacts, edge enhancement and aliasing are never an issue.
The Dolby Atmos mix, which I sampled as a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track, is perfectly adequate for this dialogue-heavy movie. That dialogue is crisp and clean throughout, and there are no issues with crowding or distortion. Light ambient effects like courtroom chatter and weather elements make use of the surrounds, and the musical soundtrack is given good representation. English, French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are included, as are English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in a standard case that is wrapped in a slipcover. A digital copy code is included. Extras are light and include Making Mercy (4:06/HD), a brief promotional featurette with interviews; The Equal Justice Initiative (8:10/HD), about the real Stevenson and his organization; This Moment Deserves (6:07/HD), about the film's story and the real McMillian case; and Deleted Scenes (14:31 total/HD).
Though it occasionally teeters into made-for-television-drama territory, Just Mercy tells a powerful story of injustice and is anchored by good performances from Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.