Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam veteran who was sentenced to death by the state of Alabama for the 1977 pipe bomb murder of an 11-year-old girl, never claimed he didn’t commit the crime for which he was convicted.
The extraordinary actor Rob Morgan (Turk from Netflix’s Daredevil series) brings Richardson to life in Just Mercy, the new film from Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton. The actor imbues his every step, stuttered words and halted breath with both the weight of that guilt and the unthinkable terror of his looming execution.
Morgan crafts a heartbreakingly precise and searingly humane portrayal of Richardson, whose war record and subsequent PTSD was never brought up in his trial. But he’s just one of at least a half-dozen supporting characters in Just Mercy who will stay with you long after the movie ends.
Add to that list O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s Anthony Hinton, a fellow inmate wrongly convicted for the murder of two fast food employees; Tim Blake Nelson’s Ralph Myers, a jailhouse informant tormented by his time in the foster system; and more centrally, Jamie Foxx’s Walter “Johnny D” McMillian, a pulpwood worker whose relationship with a local white woman made him a perfect patsy for an unsolved murder.
Unfortunately, Michael B. Jordan’s Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard-educated attorney on whose book about his founding of the Equal Rights Initiative the film is based, is far less compelling than the figures in his orbit. While Jordan, who also serves as a producer on the film, informs his performance with the mixture of contained rage and barely disguised vulnerability that have become the young actor’s trademarks, Stevenson rarely comes off as little more than a standard issue do-gooder in a film that sparks with untamed life on its margins but remains blandly stalwart at its center.
JUST MERCY ★★★
Still, even while you wish Stevenson were more fully developed, it is not difficult to accept his cursory sketching as the byproduct of creating a story around a person who clearly prefers the focus on his clients, and not on himself. Or perhaps, even more profoundly, he desires the sunshine of Cretton’s camera to reach all the corners of a corrupt justice system that the film compellingly demonstrates is rigged against the poor and disenfranchised.
Rarely if ever has the death penalty—and the damage its inequitable application inflicts on everyone from prison employees to family members of the accused—been given such a thorough and gripping rendering as it is here. Just Mercy, which was adapted by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, shows that in the hands of states like Alabama, a death sentence (which the Supreme Court restored to the states the right to administer in 1976) is as much a weapon of fear and intimidation as it is retribution. Indeed, Foxx’s McMillian was put on death row for a year while he was still awaiting trial.
While that exact period of his life is not dramatized in the film, you can witness the impact of it in the weariness of Foxx’s face and the constantly changing timbre of his voice, which shifts with celerity from soft resignation to terrified anger. The beating heart of the film, this performance is further evidence of what a gift Foxx’s late career shift to supporting parts has been for filmgoers. (See also: his turn as a sadistic henchman in Baby Driver.)
The scene where he teaches Morgan’s Richardson, through their cell walls, breathing exercises to help him deal with anxiety—shot in close-up by cinematographer Brett Pawlak—is monumentally moving, and speaks to the profound need for and power of connection. It is moments like this that allow Just Mercy to rise above both its shopworn crusading lawyer-of-the-week structure and the weight of its good intentions, becoming an utterly necessary meditation on the essentiality of human dignity.