Director Destin Cretton has called his latest film, Just Mercy, a “superhero movie.” It tells the story of real-life defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, written by… well, Bryan Stevenson. Hey, didn’t the Chappelle Show already warn us about this? Knowing where it came from, you may take a more cynical view of all those posters with Michael B. Jordan angelically looking skyward.
Okay, so maybe Stevenson didn’t name the film after himself (Destin Cretton and Andrew Lanham share writing duties) like Antwon Fisher did (the target of Chappelle’s sketch). But it’s still probably a bad idea to let people write their own superhero vehicles. Maybe “superhero story” was Cretton and Lanham’s imposition? Whatever the case, this is a film that works overtime to present us with a hero who is “heroic” while scrubbing away anything that might make him “interesting.” They’ve essentially hired one of Hollywood’s most handsome leading men to read a series of Wikipedia entries.
“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” Jordan-as-Stevenson tells us in a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington speech near the end of the film, which seems to have been built entirely out of platitudes just such as this.
A vague “goodness” is a substitute for character in Jordan’s protagonist. Him simply being “correct” is presented as the entirety of his legal strategy. Over and over when presented with seemingly insurmountable racism and corruption, Stevenson simply spews forth facts and eventually succeeds. That’s it, buddy, just keep bein’ right! This is a film that speaks unfortunate volumes about the mindset of certain establishment liberals and perceptions of liberal filmgoers. It is the ultimate fever dream of the NPR bag toter that simply being “right” will save us when the death squads come (I’ve indulged in it myself over the years). It’s almost a cosmic joke that we’re getting this movie three and a half years into a dystopian nightmare presidency.
At least the film itself is set in the eighties. We meet Stevenson when he’s still a fresh-faced intern, sent from Harvard Law to visit a death row inmate in Alabama. Stevenson is struck by he and the condemned man’s similarities, being of similar age and having both grown up playing music in the AME church — the man sings a hymn as an abusive white guard drags him away, his voice echoing down the hall as the camera pans to a tight close up on Michael B. Jordan’s “concerned face,” which will get a real workout.
The film does a poor job communicating why this interaction is such a seminal moment for Stevenson. Did an unfair justice system in the South come as a revelation? Or was it the idea of a death row inmate having a similar childhood? Fast forward to Stevenson moving back to Alabama after graduation to run his own non-profit dedicated to offering free legal help to death row inmates. How he funds this non-profit, which would seem to be the hard part, is glossed over in a few lines.
At first, Stevenson and his local assistant, played by Brie Larson, can’t even find office space, so hostile are the locals to even the idea of someone helping convicted murderers. Solution? Shrug it off and continue being right. Eventually, Stevenson meets Walter McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx, a tree trimmer framed for murder by the local Sheriff. McMillian has a whole family worth of alibis for the killing of a white girl, not to mention another for the jailhouse snitch, (played by Tim Blake Nelson) who supposedly witnessed it. McMillian and Blake’s character (a chatty, wall-eyed former foster kid with a face pulled down by burn scars) thankfully offer more personality than Stevenson. But Just Mercy is ultimately Stevenson’s story.
Stevenson is up against not only a corrupt Sheriff and bigoted locals, but an entire system designed to protect convictions, and local elected officials who can’t correct the wrongs of the past without admitting to them, thus undermining bedrock democratic principles — the catch 22 of settler colonialism. If you’ve heard In The Dark or the Murderville, GA podcasts, you can understand how insanely hard it is to overturn even the most obviously false convictions in the crony-run justice systems of the small-town South.
And from the beginning, Michael B. Jordan’s character is presented as an obviously-right guy battling to right obvious wrongs by doggedly being right. Any good lawyer knows that winning isn’t a matter of telling the truth, it’s a matter of making your case. We know what’s true. What works? What are the levers of power? How do you change minds that are already made up? The real Stevenson must have known something about that, but Just Mercy’s version just has him showing up to spout facts at people, over and over.
The reason Selma, and even Lincoln to some extent, were interesting depictions of civil rights battles, is that they showed not just MLK and Abraham Lincoln being right, but the tactical brilliance with which they actually affected change. How many more times can we indulge in the liberal fantasy that simply having the facts straight is a means to an end, that bad guys melt like the wicked witch when confronted with evidence of their own hypocrisy? That old Jesse Farrar tweet comes to mind.
I feel bad saying this about a movie directed by Destin Cretton, who gave the world Lakeith Stanfield’s debut performance and one of the all-time great closing film shots in Short Term 12, but Just Mercy is a “true story” encased in amber. Its politics are inert. The story only works as escapism, where we clap at hearing the least dangerous of truths spoken aloud and once again entertain the delusion that one man calling bullshit on a corrupt system is enough to defeat it. These days that only seems to work in superhero movies.