JUST MERCY – Review by Martha K Baker

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Just Mercy follows suit from death row to court ()

Bryan Stevenson is a force. He is a black man, a lawyer, the founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, based in Alabama. He received a hallowed McArthur Prize, the so-called “genius” fellowship grant. He graduated from the Harvard Law School, and he professes at New York University School of Law.

In 2014, Stevenson wrote Just Mercy, which recounts the beginning of the Equal Justice Initiative, similar to the Innocence Project and the Midwest Innocence Project. Stevenson’s book has become a most respectable film, the kind that forces a sob to rise from the heart at the end as captions explain what happened after the last scene fades to black.

Stevenson arrives in Monroeville, Ala., home of Harper Lee, only to find, suspiciously, that he has no office, but the organization’s manager, Eva Ansley, finds him another space. Stevenson sets to work interviewing men on death row. He pores over the ledgers and reports. He finds discrepancies and irregularities and bald lies.

He is particularly drawn to Walter McMillian, who’s been on death row since the day he was arrested — for a crime he did not commit. He was convicted on the say of a felon, one Ralph Myers, who had every reason to lie. Stevenson convinces Myers to speak truth to power. Stevenson’s persistence comes from his understanding that he dare not flare but must stick to his legal guns.

Michael B. Jordan, exemplary in Fruitvale Station, brings Stevenson to steady, righteous life. Jamie Foxx disappears inside the downcast McMillian. Tim Blake Nelson steals the show as Myers with voice and blinks and posture, and Rob Morgan’s cameo as Herbert Richardson is riveting. Brie Larson as Eva Ansler matches the subdued pacing of this fine cast.

Larson appeared in Short Term 12, one of the finest, most under-rated films ever made. Its director, Destin Daniel Cretton, also directed “Just Mercy” and wrote the script with Andrew Lanham, based on Stevenson’s words. Film editor Nat Sanders smoothly handles flashbacks and layers interviews.

What “Just Mercy” shows more than anything is the nearly impenetrable cabal of hatred in that Southern town and how the law overcame it.

I’m Martha K. Baker. From the Grand Center Arts District, this is 88.1, KDHX, St. Louis.

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Martha K. Baker

Martha K. Baker

I first taught film at Lakeland College in Wisconsin in 1969 and became a professional film reviewer in 1976 in St. Louis, Mo. Through the years, I have reviewed films for the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Episcopal Life, and KWMU (NPR), among other outlets. I've reviewed at KDHX radio, my current outlet, for nearly 20 years.