Just Mercy

Clemency

19/07/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Anybody who still believes that the death penalty is a defensible punishment should sit down and take a long, hard look at this film. Chinonye Chukwu’s bleak, slow burn of a movie ably demonstrates the ways in which capital punishment brutalises and destroys all who come into contact with it – including those who have to implement its chilling procedures.

Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodward) is the warden of an American prison, a place mostly populated by inmates awaiting death by lethal injection. In a blistering opening sequence, we see one such execution being carried out in unflinching detail. It’s horribly botched, which makes it all the more affecting.

Also waiting on death row is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a taciturn young man accused of murdering a police officer. He’s been imprisoned for seven years and  insists that he’s innocent, but what makes Clemency different from Just Mercy – a film with which it will inevitably be compared  – is that we’re really never sure whether he has committed the crime or not. In a way, it’s irrelevant, because it’s the very system of capital punishment that’s on trial here and not its victims.

Bernadine is struggling with her duties as warden – the daily grind of dealing with the fear, the hope, the demonstrators, the relatives of those imprisoned and, of course, the inmates themselves. She takes solace in drink and realises that a wedge is developing between her and her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), but feels unable to do anything about it. Around her, other people are quitting. Defence attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who has spent his life fighting for death row prisoners, tells Bernardine that Woods’ case will be his last – he just can’t take any more campaigns for clemency that never yield results. Even the dead policeman’s parents feel that justice has already been served and want Woods to be pardoned. And he, meanwhile, has pinned all his his hopes on meeting his young son for the first time.

Both Woodward and Hedges submit powerhouse performances here; neither of them isafforded much opportunity to talk, but their fears and hopes are writ large in every move, in every despairing look they direct towards the camera. This will not be the happiest screen experience you’ve ever had, but it’s nonetheless a stirring and emotional story, and a passionate plea for change.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Seberg

13/01/20

In the year 2020, who even remembers the name of Jean Seberg? Not many people judging by the meagre crowd gathered at tonight’s screening. 

But hers is a fascinating story of toxic stardom, of a young performer whose life was systematically destroyed by the FBI; of a reckless but well-intentioned young woman, who got embroiled in events she couldn’t hope to control – events that would eventually destroy her. 

Catapulted to stardom at the age of seventeen, Seberg starred in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and suffered serious burns when her character’s onscreen immolation went horribly wrong. A few years later, she became the darling of the French New Wave when she starred in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless. But Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews, examines her ill-fated trip to Hollywood in the late 60s, where she’d gone to film the Western musical Paint Your Wagon. (Or ‘Clint Eastwood Sings!’ as it’sfondly remembered my many.)

Seberg (Kristen Stewart) reluctantly leaves her husband Roman (Yvan Attal) at home with their young son. On the plane to America, she meets up with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an influential player in the burgeoning Black Power movement. She shows solidarity with his cause, contributing funds for the school he runs and, shortly afterwards, embarks on an affair with him. This brings her to the attention of the FBI, where operative Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is directed to put her under intense surveillance. When Seberg starts to engage with more powerful members of the Black Panthers, the agency sets put to discredit her by making the details of her affair with Jamal public – and, in the increasingly poisonous atmosphere that ensues, Seberg’s sanity is pushed to the edge of the abyss…

Seberg is an interesting if somewhat flawed film. Stewart is an assured actor (and, given the invasive media coverage she herself has endured, it’s easy to see what attracted her to this role), but the fictional elements of this retelling of Seberg’s story are rather less successful. O’Connell’s tightly buttoned FBI man doesn’t really have enough to do, hanging around the edges of events, listening in on her via bugging devices and serving as the audience’s collective conscience. His exchanges with his hard nosed colleague Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughan) are nicely drawn but don’t add much to the telling.

The era is nicely evoked but I would have liked to have seen some recreations of the filming of Paint Your Wagon thrown into the mix. (This is, after all, a biopic.) Perhaps there simply wasn’t the budget for that approach or more likely the filmmakers couldn’t obtain the rights. There are a couple of tantalising glimpses from St Joan and Breathless, but its not enough.

In some ways, this could be seen as the tale of a luckless individual crushed by the corrupt might of American law enforcement. But really, as Seberg herself says, ‘I am not the victim here.’ There is a much bigger  story – a shocking demonstration of the depths that the American justice system will sink to in order to prevent black people from ever achieving any sort of equality.

There seem to be quite a few such stories around right now. Add Just Mercy and Richard Jewell to the mix and we’re beginning to see a familiar trope. All of these films offer the same narrative: America is a corrupt and unforgiving place and things aren’t getting any better for the poor and the dispossessed.

This is worth seeing for Stewart’s powerful performance in the title role, but I can’t help feeling it could have been more effective than it ultimately is.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Just Mercy

09/01/20

Michael B Jordan plays civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson in this compelling biopic, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and based on Stevenson’s own memoir. It’s a cautionary tale of how racism and corruption lurk at the very heart of the United States’ legal system, where truth comes a poor second to prejudice.

Although the storytelling here is somewhat workmanlike, the subject matter and strong performances are engrossing; only the hardest of hearts could leave the cinema without feeling utterly outraged. How can a so-called democratic country persist in such appalling and blatant injustice?

Cretton focuses on one of Stevenson’s early cases, representing Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a black Alabama business owner sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of Ronda Morrison, a white teenager. Stevenson, who is using his Harvard law degree to defend those most vulnerable to the system’s ingrained bias, is appalled to discover the flimsy evidence that has condemned McMillian, known locally as Johnny D. One co-erced testimony from a white felon, it seems, counts for more than dozens of alibis from the accused’s black family and friends; one co-erced testimony, it seems, rules out the need for further corroboration of any kind.

But Stevenson is determined to expose the law’s hypocrisy, to save the poor, the black and the dispossessed one case at a time, so he sets up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. Assisted by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), he takes on the establishment, forcing DA Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall) to acknowledge that, when he says upholding McMillian’s conviction is helping ‘local people’ to feel safe, he is in fact prioritising certain social groups; local black people feel a lot less safe, exposed to the knowledge that the state can and will kill them for crimes they haven’t committed.

The two leads are perfectly cast, with both Jordan and Foxx delivering outstanding, nuanced performances. Rob Morgan is also most affecting as anguished death-row inmate, Herbert Richardson, whose story illustrates that even guilty lives matter and deserve mercy.

The most heartbreaking thing of all is that, thirty years later, nothing has really changed: parity of justice is still just a pipe dream in the US. But, as this film illustrates, even the most inflexible of systems can be challenged and slowly, with determination, changes can be wrought. It’s just shameful that this battle is so far from being won.

It’s a pity, perhaps, that Cretton has opted for such an understated style: more anger, more excoriation, more subtlety in the depiction of the establishment, might have elevated this to a big-hitter, conveying its vital message to a wider audience. As it is, its an important piece of work, but probably destined to be viewed by relatively few.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield