Every cinematic genre comes with its own hard-and-fast rules, tropes and cliches that are invariably observed by filmmakers simply because as narrative devices go, they work.
The trick of course is how much originality to bring to these oft-hallowed elements so your film feels like something fresh and unique even as it walks in the footsteps of genre mates that have gone before.
Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed and co-wrote Just Mercy with Andrew Lanham, gets the balance just right, delivering up a film, based on true events, that ticks every single box it needs to without once feeling like some emotionally moribund retread.
In fact, much of Just Mercy, which covers the period of 1987 to 1993, lays claim to such a profound sense of raw and authentic emotionality, that by the near-mandatory climactic courtroom scene you can’t help but be moved to joyful tears every bit as much as the just-exonerated black deathrow inmate, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
It’s a sense of liberation and excitement that extends into the credits and well beyond, a durable euphoria that has a shelf life far longer than many films of the genre which provide an immediate hit of inspiration but fail to last much beyond that.
Part of the reason that Just Mercy so powerfully affects you is that the writers take the time to establish the central characters, and in particular the protagonist, lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), as real, imperfect but manifestly well-intentioned people doing their best to move mountains in a legal setting that seems to be antithetical to the practise and delivery of actual justice.
Corrupt and sclerotic justice systems are the bread and butter of against-the-odds legal dramas such as Just Mercy, but the obstacles that Stevenson, and operations director of EJI Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) encounter as they battle to free the wrongly-convicted McMillian are staggeringly daunting.
Even as evidence mounts that McMillian could not have committed the crime for which he was convicted and that a re-trial must happen if justice is to be truly served, the establishment of Monroe County in Alabama, primarily composed of Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) and D.A. Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) marshall their considerable forces to stymie Stevenson at every turn.
He is subjected to the same abrogation of human rights and personal humiliations that the black population of Monroe County live with daily, with an unnecessary, and more importantly, illegal strip search greeting him at the the jail on the first day he goes to see prospective death row clients and a clearly meant to intimidate police stop sending a message that he should simply give up now.
They may seem like fairly stock standard elements in a legal procedural of this kind but they strike some fairly emphatic blows thanks largely to the nuance of Jordan’s performance which communicate every last drop of the humiliation, grief and temporary loss of motivation he feels.
These scenes are powerful because they manifestly demonstrate how great a struggle Stevenson and his team have ahead of them – the Delaware-raised lawyer may be made of almost immovable ideals and a tenacity that has to be seen to be believed, but as he encounters the muscularly cruel resistance of Tate and his department and the more benign neglect of true justice practised by Champan, it becomes apparent that this will not be some easily-won battle against the odds.
It is the many setbacks that Stevenson and Ansley et al encounter that lend such deeply affecting emotional resonance to the film.
Supremely talented though he is, Stevenson does not always emerge victorious, losing some fairly potent battles on the way including one that can’t help but leave you weeping and furious at the inhumanity of corporal punishment and which initially saps and then emboldens Stevenson’s quest to bring justice for McMillian where it seems time and again there is none to be found.
The enduring message however is that while it is all too easy to feel like the odds are comprehensively stacked against you when it comes to fighting the good fight, that doesn’t mean the fight should be abandoned.
At one point lofty words are spoken by Stevenson at a Senate hearing about the way that the fairness and equity of the dispensation of justice to all the citizens of a country regardless of race, status or economic clout is a mark of how well it is governed overall.
At many points throughout the film where the entrenched powers that be seem to hold all the cards and effective opposition seems all but pointless, it is tempting to think of Stevenson’s idealistic pronouncements as a hollow and meaningless.
The thing is though that by the time you reach his speech, he has succeeded in proving that while standing up against injustice, racism and inhumanity is a titanic struggle and will take all you’ve got and then some, that it has not simply value but a presence in the real world.
In other words, while many might despair that the pernicious evils in our society can never be counteracted, the truth is they can be, and Just Mercy, which proffers further successful examples in the credits of Stevenson’s ongoing crusade to ensure that justice is served, no matter the difficulty of the situation, is an inspiring masterclass in why taking up and sustaining the fight is not only possible but vital, not simply for the lives of affected individuals but society as a whole.
Just Mercy is a powerful film – structurally it’s nothing out of the box but it’s message is deeply, profoundly resonant, the performances are across the board brilliant and it’s one of those based on a true story dramas that feels innately, immeasurably true, its impact staying with you long after you emerge into a world needing far more of Stevenson’s brand of justice to feel truly whole.