Film review: Just Mercy a fine courtroom drama that focuses on race in Alabama

Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy
Damon Smith

BASED on lawyer Bryan Stevenson's memoir Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton's courtroom drama adds a thick layer of Hollywood sheen to the true story of an Alabama pulpwood worker, who attempted to overturn his murder conviction from death row.

The script is tethered to the facts of the case. There are no last-gasp twists in the judge's deliberations nor any surprise witnesses, whose evidence provides a missing piece of the narrative.

Just Mercy is a deeply conventional courtroom drama, galvanised by strong performances from Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx as the impassioned legal counsel and prisoner resigned to his grim fate, who learn valuable lessons about trust during four years of appeals.

The two actors savour meaty dialogue, countering hope with weary cynicism in energetic verbal exchanges against a backdrop of racial discrimination in 1980s Alabama – a southern state with a Latin motto that translates as "We dare defend our rights".

Oscar-winner Brie Larson makes the most of limited screen time and London-born co-star Rafe Spall wrestles with a questionable southern accent as the hard-nosed district attorney, whose conscience might be pricked by a miscarriage of justice on his watch.

On November 1 1986, the town of Monroeville, where Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, recoils from news of a violent crime in the beating heart of the community.

Eighteen-year-old part-time clerk Ronda Morrison has been strangled and shot dead at Jackson Cleaners.

A trial lasting a day and a half finds local man Walter McMillian (Foxx), known as Johnny D, guilty of the heinous act.

The conviction hinges on eyewitness evidence from Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson).

Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) publicly professes Walter's guilt and a judge overrules the jury's recommendation of life behind bars to hand down a death sentence.

Two years later, idealistic lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) takes up Walter's case and braces for a hostile reception.

"What you're doing is gonna make a lot of people upset," warns his mother. "You better be careful."

Bryan co-founds the Equal Justice Initiative with southern firebrand Eva Ansley (Larson) and visits Holman Correctional Facility, where Walter is awaiting execution.

The lawyer attempts to buoy his client's spirits but Walter is aware of the slim chances of success against District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Spall).

"You know how many people been freed from Alabama death row?" Walter sternly asks Bryan. "None... You ain't gonna be the one to change that."

Just Mercy is a showcase for Jordan and Foxx, who forge a compelling and moving screen partnership that energises the bloated running time.

The emotional beats of Cretton's script are predictable but there is undeniable satisfaction when they land, accompanied by heavenly harmonies from a gospel choir on the soundtrack.

JUST MERCY (12A, 137 mins) Thriller/Romance. Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall. Director: Destin Daniel Cretton.

RATING: 7/10

Released: January 17 (UK & Ireland)

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