Just Mercy isn’t successful because of its script. The script matters, but draws hardened lines through its Alabama setting. The racist judges, cops, and lawyers play to true story cliches, and in going against them, Michael B. Jordan stands in court to deliver courageous monologues, speaking past the movie and directly to the audience.
A sheriff and prosecutor hold limited character – composites of southern white men seeking any means to put black men on death row. In one scene, the sheriff is composed sitting in front of a Confederate flag. Not disingenuous in the circumstances so much as framing characters in limited screen time. Yet the real world villains portrayed in Just Mercy, with only their eyes, convey their bias and bigotry. They don’t need to speak, just look. Their hate shows. It’s felt rather than said. A script can’t offer that.
Just Mercy falls to Jordan (sensational, as usual) playing Bryan Stevenson, lawyer for condemned men. Although focused on one case – a wrongful murder conviction – Just Mercy depicts broader, overwhelming injustice. Courtroom pleas represent too many, whether in the deep south or otherwise. It’s a well deserved PSA for Stevenson’s cause, who takes over when state-appointed attorneys failed.
Just Mercy leaves with a feeling of partial victory
Just Mercy leaves with a feeling of partial victory
Cautiously, Stevenson’s work isn’t shown as endless success. Just Mercy swells with appropriate empathy, mournful for those who cannot escape the system. For something drawn in the studio formula, it’s an important reality. The struggles don’t come from Stevenson’s perspective, rather those sentenced to die. While Stevenson endures prejudice and assault, the hardened drama happens in prison as inmates try to reassure and calm one another.
There’s a question Just Mercy doesn’t answer. It’s seeking an uplifting ending, yet leaving an audience wondering how a man released after 30 years copes. As is the norm, the epilogue comes via text over the end credits, if unable to convey harm caused by long term mistreatment. There’s a story there too, with Stevenson and client Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) remaining friends. Just Mercy misses the chance to show lingering stress, and whether prosecutors were pushed from their positions.
Faults in its methods aside, the genuine racial inequality is evident. People like Stevenson, legal heroes, help. They, however, are not a solution to systemic social problems. Just Mercy leaves with a feeling of partial victory, a sign that when people do right, what seems impenetrable can be conquered. It’s purposeful and inspiring, placing blame only where it belongs, even if that scope appears limited.
Mastered at 4K, the digital cinematography at Just Mercy’s heart pours out detail. Gorgeous, consistent sharpness allows for definition to flow, capturing precision close-ups and the texture within them. Making full use America’s south, exteriors resolve wide plains and city centers with ease. There’s no lull to speak of, and digitally layered grain poses no issue to the encode.
Set in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, color grading takes to sepia hues. Just Mercy favors warmth, keeping primaries subdued (in keeping with the mood), if offering a pleasing aesthetic. Flesh tones hit their mark, and when panning across grassy landscapes, greenery excels.
In using the slightly faded look, black levels recede. As Stevenson is pulled over at night, shadows take on a dense blue rather than black. Depth isn’t sacrificed, rather lessened. However, even with the warmer tint, contrast brings excellent brightness. The jail set is primarily painted white, sans losses to luster.
Surprisingly in Dolby Atmos, the courtroom drama doesn’t need the enveloping soundstage, but uses it when possible. In the opening scene, Jamie Foxx cuts down a tree, the forest ambiance set wide, the eventual fall tracked overhead and into the stereos. A nice low-end thud accompanies the landing.
From there, Just Mercy’s score stretches available range. The rest is dialog-driven with city streets filling in rears or stereos. Metal cups clang against prison bars, directional as the camera passes, with that sound seeping into other rooms as edits come.
Limited materials dampen a story that deserves more attention. The Equal Justice Initiative becomes the focus in the longest feature, running eight minutes. A dull EPK is then followed by a short look at Stevenson himself, and how the movie portrayed him. Deleted scenes come in at 14-minutes.
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Just Mercy falls to typical studio formulas, but is helped by fantastic performances and critically important racial injustice themes.
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