The finest moments of Just Mercy are the quietest, when the director, Destin Daniel Cretton, pauses to consider the simple power of freedom. The biographical film begins in 1987, the year the Alabaman logger Walter McMillian was arrested for a murder he did not commit, based on one piece of coerced testimony. Before he’s stopped by police, McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx) is working in the forest and looks up to contemplate the sky. Years later, as he waits on death row, it’s a memory he returns to again and again: a mundane glimpse of something he didn’t know he could lose.
Details like this keep the entire movie from coming off as simple stenography—a trap that many biopics fall into and that’s sometimes a problem for Just Mercy. Cretton’s film is a mostly straightforward look at the attorney Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to defend death-row inmates and exonerate the wrongly accused. Much of Just Mercy’s plotting is procedural, tracking Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he moves to Montgomery, Alabama, in the early ’90s; takes up McMillian’s case, among others; and deals with community pushback while filing appeal after appeal of the wrongful conviction.
It’s a remarkable story, but a cinematically limited one, constantly in danger of seeming more like a news summary than a narrative work. No mystery surrounds McMillian’s innocence—it’s clear from the first minute that his arrest is a racist frame job, orchestrated by a sheriff who was panicking under pressure to solve the murder of a young white woman. Stevenson, whose criminal-justice work is still ongoing, is driven by his sense of morality, and his real-life heroism is dutifully represented on-screen.