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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Just Mercy’ – The more things change, the more they stay the same

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By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“Just Mercy” would be the one of the best movies of the year if the year were 1988 or even 1968. There were moments when I glanced away from the screen, looked back and fully expected to see Sidney Poitier.

A scene from “Just Mercy”

That’s not to dismiss Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,” “Black Panther”) who does very fine job as the Poitier-ish lawyer from Harvard who comes down to redneck-central (i.e., Alabama) to defend an innocent man in a murder trial.

Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) can be forgiven for being a bit surprised that things are how they are in Monroeville, hometown of Harper Lee (in the film’s best running gag, everyone keeps suggesting he drop by the Mockingbird Museum, “one of the great Civil Rights landmarks of the South”).

After all, it is 1987. African-Americans can not only vote; they can be elected to office (and have been). Chifforobes and shifty-eyed white trash are supposed to be a thing of the past.

And yet, here Stevenson is, ready to defend Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who’s been framed for the murder of a white woman. McMillian readily admits he’s no saint, having run around on his loyal wife. But a murderer?

Still, he ends up on Death Row where he bonds with the other dead ducks waiting for their time in the chair. This is supposed to be the film’s most powerful aspect, and in many ways, it is – especially when a very likable but, unfortunately, also very guilty Vietnam vet is executed.

Poster of “Just Mercy”

“Just Mercy” does just about everything right, from the gospel-laced soundtrack to the bravura cast (though Oscar-winner and current Captain Marvel, Brie Larson, is totally wasted as Stevenson’s home-grown assistant and Tim Blake Nelson seems to have wandered in from a casting call for ‘Marat/Sade” as the local crazy willing to testify on behalf of Foxx).

That it’s based on a true story gives the movie an extra punch. Framing a black man for murder in the late 1980s? Really? Hasn’t anyone seen “In the Heat of the Night?”

Apparently not. Or apparently, it makes no difference. From the opening scene when a cracker sheriff makes a crack about Walter’s “fancy truck,” we know things aren’t going to be fair.

Perhaps that’s what director Destin Cretton intends to teach us. The more things change, the more….

But somehow that message never gains the power it should have, and we’re left with a film that’s easy to respect, but hard to admire. Emotionally, “Just Mercy” just sort of lies there. Maybe a chifforobe would’ve helped after all.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Lori January 21, 2020 3:42 pm

    “Just Mercy” is one of the best movies of the year, and it is 2020 not 1968 or 1988. The film takes starts in 1987 when racism and discrimination were still rampant but should not have been. In 1987, perhaps only white people thought: “Chifforobes and shifty-eyed white trash are supposed to be a thing of the past.” However, Black people know differently. Your sarcasm in the description of this movie is indicative of the fact that you appear to not have zero understanding for what Black and Brown people have faced or continue to face in the USA regarding injustice in government, laws and the judicial system.

    Emotionally, “Just Mercy” grips anyone with a conscience, heart or half a brain from the opening scene to the closing one and helps to remind them of the best and worst in our society.

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    Henry Barfield January 25, 2020 7:54 am

    Understand that you seeing the world as a white woman. You see it differently. But seeing this in 1987 no one white would have cared. They would have seen a black man getting off from a murder they believe he did. But you show the world that color blind is still in this world. That white is always right. This is a great movie and had my mad sad happy. And sad again. Because not much has changed. To a person being on color. You will always be guilty until proven innocent. Need time talk to the 1 black friend you have before putting words out.

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