Just Mercy homes into view bearing the look of fairly conventional awards bait, and to some degree it is. The very first image it sets before us is a title card inscribed with the deathless legend "based on a true story"; what follows is a courtroom drama in which an idealistic legal eagle goes about overturning an old-fashioned all-American fit-up. What elevates Destin Daniel Cretton's film a little above the norm is that it's far more attuned to issues of race than its predecessors in this field. The questions it asks are these: what if it were a black lawyer who headed for the Deep South to try and get a wrongly convicted black man off Death Row? How would that change the character arcs and narrative beats? As the critic Emily Nussbaum argued on Twitter yesterday, diversity is socially beneficial, but the best argument for it in art is the effect it can have on storytelling - which is to say that it can redirect the stale and hackneyed, and point out what may previously have gone unseen or overlooked. Cretton's film is a solid example of this: it'll be nobody's idea of a radical overhaul of the legal genre, but it's able to sound a few new notes that freshen up its otherwise boilerplate melodrama.
Its starting point is the work of Bryan Stevenson (played here by Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard-educated lawyer who travelled to Alabama in the early 1990s to review the cases of several lifers, only to find himself something of a marked man. Some of his bushy-tailed optimism was knocked out of him when, upon showing up to interview his subjects, the guards subjected him to a full stripsearch; both his #1 client, a gentle soul named Walter "Johnny D." McMillian (Jamie Foxx), sent down in a rush for the murder of a young white woman, and the community he emerged from, retain their own suspicions about Stevenson, tainted as he apparently is by association with the Ivy League. When the lawyer finally wins McMillian's trust, towards the end of a judiciously paced first hour, it's with the story of how his grandfather was knifed to death in the projects in a dispute over a black-and-white television, capped by the summary "I know what it is to live in the shadows", which isn't a line you could imagine the whiter-than-white heroes of a John Grisham adaptation selling anybody on. Crucially, McMillian isn't treated as an isolated case of injustice, rather one of a chorus of voices on Death Row - all black, all with their own stories of what it is to be African-American in the US penal system, all facing up to the barbarism of capital punishment, a horror Cretton takes particular care to evoke via the trajectory of McMillian's PTSD-afflicted wingmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan).
That's an instructive, pointed sidebar, certainly; elsewhere, it should be said that Cretton's choices are generally of the predictable kind. Just Mercy shapes up as one of those journey-not-destination movies, because the outcome of McMillian's appeal never really appears to be in any doubt. (Even the studio system isn't so blinkered it would make a movie celebrating a miscarriage of justice.) The journey is enlivened by chewy gobbets of character acting. Foxx - reminding us he was an Oscar winner fifteen years ago - is on thoughtful, understated form as a man who accepted his wrongful fate as punishment for some lesser crime; Rafe Spall gives good weasel (and debuts a twangy Southern accent) as the DA stubbornly opposed to reopening the case; best of all is Tim Blake Nelson, cherishably jumpy as the jailbird who might be vital to setting McMillian free, if Stevenson could only get him to sit still for a moment. If there's a weak link, it's Jordan, given only a bland air of concern to work with after his introductory scenes; he's far less dynamic and eloquent at the bar than he was in motion in Creed and Black Panther, though he wears the suits reasonably well, which may be all you want from a hero lawyer in this kind of movie. There's a lot of it - Cretton's dutiful adherence to this case's contours means we end up in court not once, but twice - and it peters out with the now-standard sideshow of photos illustrating just how close everybody got to resembling the real folks involved. Still, in its more engaged stretches, Just Mercy casts appreciable new light on this genre's reliable pleasures: the scenes of frantic library research, the last-reel courtroom surprise, the underlying sense of the arc of history beginning to bend towards justice. There are points in history when the movies can help us remember just what that looks like.
Just Mercy opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.