A lot or a little?
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Just Mercy is a fact-based courtroom drama that tackles the subjects of racism and the death penalty. It centers on idealistic young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who travels to Alabama to help save a wrongfully convicted man on Death Row (Jamie Foxx). It has strong language, including multiple uses of "s--t" and the "N" word. There are also some violent and/or upsetting scenes, including a police officer pointing his gun at Bryan's head and the lead-up to a character's death by execution. But violence is primarily conveyed through dialogue, including discussions of murder (shooting and strangulation), the planting of a bomb, and a character getting burned. There are also moments of anger and hate/racism. Bryan is forced to strip for a search; he's humiliated as he removes his shirt and (below the frame) pants and underwear. There's also brief, mild sex-related dialogue, and brief smoking and beer drinking. The story isn't surprising, but it's very effective, with clear messages of perseverance, the importance of doing the right thing, fighting hard for those who need it the most, and the problematic relationship between bigotry and justice.
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What's the story?
In JUST MERCY, young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) decides, after completing an internship helping Death Row inmates, to devote himself to the cause full-time. He moves to Monroeville, Alabama (home of Harper Lee), teams up with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), and starts focusing on the case of Walter "Johnny D." McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Johnny D. was accused and convicted of killing a teen girl based on the testimony of two unreliable witnesses. Bryan thinks it will be easy to prove that Johnny D. was nowhere near the crime scene at the time of the murder, but he quickly finds that the white establishment in Alabama isn't so eager to allow a convicted murderer back out on the street, no matter what the evidence says. Can Bryan find justice for his client?
Is it any good?
It follows a pretty traditional arc, but this prison/courtroom drama is still effectively tense and moving thanks to fine performances and the picture it presents of simmering racial injustice. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Just Mercy almost always feels like a movie. All of the familiar beats, speeches, and plot turns happen just when they're supposed to, without the messiness of life coming into it (as it did so vividly in Cretton's remarkable breakthrough feature, Short Term 12). But the film quickly establishes a good sense of place, from Bryan suffering the indignities of being Black in Alabama to the large gathering of friends and neighbors at the home of Johnny D.'s family when Bryan goes to see them.
Just Mercy also offers a slate of solid supporting characters -- including a subtly menacing district attorney (Rafe Spall), a candy-munching convict (Tim Blake Nelson), and Johnny D.'s next-cell neighbors on Death Row (O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Rob Morgan) -- all of whom add to the movie's texture. Then, as the pieces of the puzzle come together, occasionally blocked by bigotry and corruption, the tension and excitement start to ramp up. The final piece is Foxx, who's very good as Johnny D., hardened and reluctant to hope anymore. In the moments he does actually find hope, his emotion is palpable.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Just Mercy's violence. Given that the movie chooses not to show its most violent acts, does that make the movie less violent?
How does the movie portray racism? How about the relationship between racism and justice/the law?
How accurate do you think this movie is to events as they actually happened? Why might filmmakers choose to alter the facts in a movie that's based on a true story? Check out the documentary version of Bryan's story.
To Kill a Mockingbird is referenced many times in this movie. How does that story compare to this one?
- In theaters: December 25, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: March 27, 2020
- Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
- Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism
- Character strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 136 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic content including some racial epithets
- Last updated: August 25, 2020
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