Rob Morgan

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

Mudbound

25/11/17

It’s getting to that time of year when rumblings are made about potential Oscar material and it must be said that some of those rumblings have already been directed towards Mudbound. This slow burning historical drama, co-written and directed by Dee Rees and based upon a novel by Hillary Jordan, certainly features the kind of material that often attracts those all-important votes. The fact that it’s a Netflix Original will doubtless cloud the waters somewhat, but the film has received a limited theatrical release (presumably to ensure that it can be considered eligible for such awards), despite the fact that it’s ready to stream right now for anyone willing to stump up their monthly subscription.

The Second World War is in full swing and, with so many able-bodied men away from home, Laura (Carey Mulligan), already in her mid-thirties, finds herself in danger of being left an ‘old maid’. So she’s pleased when she meets up with Henry McCallan (Jason Clarke), a small town businessman with big ambitions, who throws an agreeable look in her direction and hits paydirt. He promptly introduces Laura to his younger, more handsome brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and it’s evident from the outset that the two of them are instantly attracted to each other, but Laura and Henry marry nonetheless and shortly afterwards start a family. One day, Henry casually announces that he’s purchased a farm in Mississippi (as you do) and that the McCallums will soon be relocating there. Oh yes, one other thing. They will also be taking along Harry’s widower father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame). Pappy proves to have all the inherent charm of a grizzly bear with a bad case of hemorrhoids, but Laura decides that she’ll just have to try and make the best of things. Suffering is something she clearly has an aptitude for.

Once in Mississippi, the McCallums discover that Henry has been duped. The palatial home they expected to occupy actually belongs to somebody else and they must make the best of a dilapidated shotgun shack on the farm. They will also be the employers of a black family that works the land – Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their many children. From this point, a life of utter misery ensues for pretty much everyone in the story and matters become more complicated when Jamie decides to join the air force and the Jackson’s oldest boy, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in a tank battalion. Both men endure terrible experiences in the war, but ironically, for Ronsel at least, he is finally free of the Jim Crow laws that still hold sway in rural Mississippi. For the first time in his life, he is treated as an equal.

When the war finishes and the two men return to their respective families, it’s hard for Ronsel to accept that he must once again resume his former position in life – he can no longer even use the front door of his local general store. Traumatised by their shared experiences, Ronsel and Jamie strike up an unlikely friendship – but of course, in this bigoted world, white men and black men are not permitted to be friends – and when word of Ronsel’s adventures in Europe are accidentally made public, there is a terrible price to pay…

If Mudbound occasionally feels a little ponderous, there’s no denying the power of the narrative and the importance of the film’s inherent message. Its penultimate act is as gripping as it is devastating. There are also some nice performances here (Blige seems to be getting most of the Oscar-buzz but Banks’ portrait of a racist, misogynistic scumbag is also chillingly memorable). With its glacially slow pace and unusual attention to areas that don’t usually receive the opportunity of screen time, perhaps the film is actually more suited to being viewed on the small screen, where it’s something you can take a short break from and come back to.

Oscars? Well, if I’m honest, there are already several films I would deem more deserving of next year’s awards, but this isn’t at all bad and it certainly goes a long way to dispel the notion that Netflix are only interested in financing mindless entertainment. Mudbound is a long way from that. Interested parties can check it out at the click of a button – or the eagle-eyed might even spot one of those rare cinematic showings.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney