Let’s talk about race and cinema. The American Academy acted swiftly to ensure that race and gender bias would not be an on-going issue in the 2020’s; the lack of recognition for Destin Daniel Cretton’s 2019 thriller Just Mercy in terms of coveted Oscar nominations suggested that they will have to go further. This is a compelling drama about wrongful accusation, race and capital punishment that should have been a good bet for recognition. The shunning of this, and of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in tv/streaming awards, suggests that Just Mercy will have to settle for satisfying its own audience and constituancy. It sets a bad example for the US academy to view and then not recognise such strong work, seemingly due to the race or gender of the film-makers; there’s considerable evidence that this was happening in 2019/2020.
Michael B Jordan doesn’t have much to go on as lawyer Bryan Stevenson, but the actor’s charisma and personable approach take him a long way. He’s strip-searched on his way to Death Row, where he interviews a number of potential clients, notably Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). The temporary loss of Steven’s dignity is nothing compared to McMillian’s long terms incarceration for a crime that authorities son’t have any existing evidence for. Stevenson makes contact with a number of Death Row inmates, the execution of one of whom forms a key moment here. But with the improbably glamorous Eva (Brie Larson) shuffling the papers, it’s an aspirational fight for justice that keeps dignity until a swirl of celestial choirs overwhelm the final scenes.
Miscarriages of justice make for compelling cinema, and Just Mercy gains from being based on Stevenson’s book about a real-life case. There are touches of worldly humor; when Stevenson finds cassettes relating to a false confession and asks for permission to copy them, the black woman manning the evidence desk shrugs and says ‘They ain’t paying me enough to stop you.’ Such interludes are welcome, because Just Mercy feels a little sanctimonious at times; it feels like McMillian’s cynical voice is too often left off-screen.
Such nit-picking aside, Just Mercy has a strong relevance to the black experience of America in 2020. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ says Stevenson, and the thrust of the film is that black communities will have to help themselves, because no-one else will be willing to right the wrongs perpetrated against them. That’s a painful truth about the ongoing failure of US justice to keep with the times that’s worth articulating, whether traditionally white-dominated awards bodies recognise it or not.