Wherever you stand on the controversial topic of capital punishment, it’s probably safe to say that no one wants to get it wrong and accidentally put an innocent person to death. And while we would probably all like to believe the justice system is infallible and that it goes out of its way to get it right and ensure those given the ultimate sentence are truly guilty and deserving, the sad truth is that isn’t the case. Especially in the past. And even more especially in parts of the South.
Just Mercy is the true story of an idealistic, fresh-from-Harvard-Law graduate African American, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who travels to Alabama to open the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Brie Larsen) to seek justice for those wrongfully convicted or who had received inadequate counsel. While visiting the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, Stevenson meets with a variety of inmates and listens to one sad story after another about being railroaded by a legal system that seems rigged to work against them.
One of these is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), accused, convicted, and sentenced to death in Monroe, Alabama for the 1986 murder of an 18-year-old white girl. After McMillian has spent years on death row, Stevenson takes up his case. (Interestingly, Monroe County is where Harper Lee was born, and the wrongful trial and conviction of Tom Robinson in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird in many ways echoes what happened to McMillian.)
As Stevenson starts digging through files and records and court transcripts, it quickly becomes apparent that the case against McMillian was fueled by deep-seated racism and the need to solve the murder, with much of the evidence that would have acquitted him having been excluded, and with the guilty verdict—and the prosecution’s entire case—hinging entirely on the forced and fabricated testimony of a convicted felon, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).
Beyond the compelling story, what truly drives Just Mercy are the fantastic performances turned in by Jordan, Foxx, and Nelson. Jordan is quickly becoming a favorite actor of mine, after engaging roles in Creed, Black Panther, and Fruitvale Station, and he definitely delivers here, showing off Stevenson’s idealism and hope to change the system and save lives. And we repeatedly experience the shocking injustice at virtually every turn through his eyes and expressions.
Foxx is the polar opposite of his normal bombastic and cocky persona, instead being reserved and slow to believe and hope that this time this lawyer will actually be different, but when intensity and emotion are called for, Foxx delivers.
Nelson, who has made a career of playing quirky characters (and whose appearance in movies never fails to elicit an, “We thought you was a toad!” quote from my wife and me, recalling his character Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother Where Art Thou?) does a terrific job of inhabiting the conflicted Myers, adopting a tic and speech pattern that represent his abuse growing up in the foster system and bringing some humanity to what initially seems an unredeemable person.
The film avoids all of the usual prison-film tropes of guards beating prisoners, yard riots, or shower rapes, and instead focuses on the friendships that develop between prisoners on the Row and the helpless feeling of waiting around in a cage for someone or something else to make a decision that will change or end your life.
There is one execution that underscores the high stakes involved should the appeals fail, but even that scene shies away from reveling in anything gruesome, with the camera instead cutting away right before the electricity is applied. However, it retains a high level of emotion as we experience what we can’t see through Stevenson’s eyes and the feelings of the other prisoners along with a low, steady hum of high-current passing off camera.
Repeatedly, the film leaves you feeling infuriated by the smug confidence and corruption of the (then) all-white Alabama law machine, specifically Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) who seems less concerned whether McMillian is the guilty person and more so that someone is going to pay. The justice system appears to circumvent and corrupt justice at every turn, and, like
McMillian, you end up with a feeling of despair, hopelessness, and anguish. Just how many wrongs can be uncovered and the truth still be denied?
Filmed in 8K, Just Mercy is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and closeups certainly reveal each pixel of this detail. Facial detail is sharp and in razor focus, showing every pore, pockmark, and whisker. Early on Stevenson wears a V-neck sweater vest, and there is fine-line stitching clearly visible along the neck and shoulders.
The film has a mostly reserved color palette throughout. Many exterior scenes feature earth tones under a mostly muted and overcast sky, with even the often bright-blue Alabama skies dialed back. The interior of McMillian’s home is filled with tans, browns, creams, and other muted tones, and the prison interiors are taupes, greys, whites, and beiges.
HDR is used to provide punch to shadows and sunlight streaming through windows, but this isn’t really a film that stuns with amazing visuals.
Sonically, I’d call the Dolby Atmos soundtrack reserved. Fortunately, dialogue, which is the all-important character here, is well and faithfully presented in the
center channel, letting you easily understand every line. They do use some opportunities to provide some ambience in the mix, such as having birds chirp, wind blowing, and leaves rustling in outdoor scenes. The mix also does a nice job of putting you inside the prison, with dialogue mixed in a way to makes you feel like you’re in a low-ceilinged room, with the subtle buzz of lights and hum of the HVAC system. Occasionally, you’ll hears doors slamming or shouts off in the distance. When McMillian is locked in his cell, the door slides shut with a weighty and convincing thunk.
Just Mercy is a heavy and powerful 2 hour and 17-minute film that received a well-deserved 99% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is one that will leave you thinking well after the credits roll. In fact, an end-credit scene leaves you with the staggering statistic that for every nine persons executed in the United States, one is exonerated and set free.
The film dropped a week earlier than expected at the Kaleidescape store, nearly a full month before the physical Blu-ray release on April 14. No 4K disc version is announced at this time, making Kaleidescape your best option for the highest-quality viewing experience.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.