Just Mercy (4 stars)

Just Mercy

TIFF 2019: Destin Daniel Cretton's crusading legal drama stars Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan

There is an old-fashioned, crusading quality to Just Mercy that feels comfortingly familiar. Based on a true miscarriage of justice, it deals in traditional elements of false conviction, unreliable witnesses, vested interests, crushing setbacks, impossible odds and eloquently impassioned courtroom speeches. The cold, hard facts of the case and the heartfelt direction of Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) ensure that it still makes a powerful impact.

In 1988, African-American Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), known as Johnny D, is convicted of the murder of a teenage white girl, Ronda Morrison. The case against him is the damning testimony of one felon, impressively played by a twitchy Tim Blake Nelson. There is no incriminating evidence and little attempt to follow due process.

Bryan Stevenson (a charismatic Michael B Jordan) is fresh out of Harvard when he arrives in Monroe County, Alabama to act on behalf of Death Row inmates. It feels like walking back in time to a land where the Civil Rights movement has yet to take effect. There is a bitter irony in the pride locals take in the fact that this is where Harper Lee set To Kill a Mockingbird. There is something of the idealistic Atticus Finch in Stevenson as his efforts on behalf of McMillan and his loyal family become all-consuming.

Cretton impressively keeps hitting home what is at stake here. A prisoner's execution is harrowing. When Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) agrees to manage Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative she is, quite literally, putting her life on the line. Stevenson's emotional control in the face of countless obstacles and endless humiliation lends him a true nobility.

Just Mercy can't quite avoid a little sermonising but that seems forgivable. It builds into an emotional, thought-provoking drama that confronts the abiding racism in American society and the way justice is so often denied to the poor, huddled masses that the country once claimed to welcome.

Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 24 Jan.

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