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.