TIFF Film #1 of 8
Just Mercy is written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously made one of my all-time favourites films, 2013’s Short Term 12, which gave us a breakthrough and star-making performance from Brie Larson, and remarkable early work from future stars Kaitlyn Dever and Lakeith Stanfield. I still haven’t had the chance to see his follow-up film, The Glass Castle, but Short Term 12 garnered him enough good favour in my book that this was a high priority for me when I was selecting my films for the festival. Set in Alabama in the 1980’s and 90’s, Just Mercy tells the true story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and a young defence attorney, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who works to overturn his conviction and free him from death row. It some respects it may be considered a formulaic and predictable court room drama, but if we accept that premise, we also have to acknowledge that it is a tremendously well told and performed formulaic court room drama. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx both give, in my opinion, career best performances here. I see Oscar nominations in lead and supporting actor for each of them respectively. There is a scene around the mid-point of the film lead by Rob Morgan playing real life death row inmate Herbert Jackson that is an absolutely stunning piece of filmmaking, and let me tell you, bring tissues. I don’t think there was a single dry eye in the house. O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Brie Larson also both have supporting roles here, with Jackson Jr. playing another real life death row inmate, Anthony Ray Hinton, and Brie Larson playing Eva Ansley, one of Bryan Stevenson’s colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative. All things considered, and although they cover vastly different subject matter, Just Mercy and Short Term 12 have a lot in common. Short Term 12 is a story of at-risk children and the people who dedicate their lives to helping them, while Just Mercy is a story of racial injustice and bigotry in a broken criminal justice system, but both films are ultimately about human compassion and empathy, something that there seems to far too little of in the world right now. This story puts us in the shoes of people who need help the most, but aren’t receiving any because of the way they are perceived, and allows us to see them as human beings. “Each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done”. The real Bryan Stevenson was at my screening and introduced the film along with Destin Daniel Cretton. He spoke about how he hopes his story and this film will inspire change, and after seeing it, I know I won’t be alone in hoping that too.