Real-life hero lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and an advocate for death row inmates and others unfairly incarcerated, comes to life on the big screen in “Just Mercy.” Adapted from Stevenson’s memoir of the same title, it is a depiction of one of the pivotal cases he took on at the onset of his legal career. When Stevenson, who is from Philadelphia, went to Harvard Law School on a scholarship, he hadn’t planned to relocate to Alabama afterwards, let alone work on death row cases. Like many of his classmates, he assumed a lucrative profession in corporate law lay before him, but fate had other plans. After a summer internship in the late 80s of working Civil Rights cases and meeting several death row inmates who were victims of abject racism and unfairly incarcerated, bonds were made and an activist was born. Stevenson did a U-turn back to the deep south upon graduation to the fear and disappointment of his mother. It was almost just as hard to develop a law firm dedicated to this cause as it was taking on cases of this kind. To say it was an uphill battle is an understatement.
It is at this point of Stevenson’s life and legal practice that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton begins the adaptation. He smartly puts acclaimed actor Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) in the lead role of Civil Rights attorney, Stevenson. Not surprising, Stevenson’s Harvard degree, professional persona and attire, and good intentions couldn’t shield himself from being a victim of racism as well as anyone he represented. Early on in his arrival in Alabama, he meets Eva Ansley, a young white wife and mother who is dedicated to Stevenson’s cause. She and her husband welcome him into their home while he settles in. After helping him set up the office and law practice, she naturally falls into the role of legal assistant, even at the risk of her family’s safety. One of their first cases is appealing the conviction of Walter McMillian (Jamie Fox) who is wrongfully convicted of killing a white young woman despite an avalanche of evidence proving his innocence. The audience is ushered into and through a true human story and legal drama.
Jordan portrays Stevenson appropriately as a naive, earnest and quiet young attorney. Much of his performance is in being restraint, communicating more in his demeanor and expressions than words or outrage. By contrast, Ansley in real life and in the hands of Larson, is tough and brash. It’s a good role for Larson and likable and impressive performance. Although Fox is in a supporting role and surrounded by a stellar cast, he as Walter is the standout performance. His portrayal is a deeply moving combination of anger and fear, mixed with a bit of optimism as he begins to trust Stevenson and hangs on to hope. Playing the part with soul and conviction, it is Fox’s best performance since “Ray.”
Unlike the movie, Stevenson’s memoir is set up as vignettes of numerous cases he took on at the same time as Walter’s and after. The adaptation narrows the focus to just the one case. For fans of the book that may come as a surprise and/or disappointment, but it makes sense within the movies’ time limitations. Also, if there was just one of Stevenson’s laudable cases to portray, this is the best choice. It ended up being his most high profile, changing trajectory of his practice, and launching the EJI. Beyond that, there is nothing else for followers of Stevenson or fans of the book to bemoan because “Just Mercy” the movie is solidly good adaptation and a compelling drama. It will bring a tear to your eye, but more importantly, shine a light on an honorable man, admirable causes and a little-known case.