Review: Jamie Foxx centers 'Just Mercy' as its beating heart

Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson co-star in fact-based courtroom tale

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The beats in "Just Mercy," the type of based-on-a-true-story, one-man-against-the-system tale of injustice that rolls around every year during awards season, are familiar.

But its performances, particularly Jamie Foxx as an innocent man sentenced to death row, elevate it above the fray.  

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in "Just Mercy."

Foxx is magnificent in a reserved, quietly affecting performance as Walter McMillian, known to family and friends as "Johnny D.," who was convicted in 1988 of murdering a white teenage girl in Monroeville, Alabama. The cooked-up case against him was based entirely on the coerced testimony of a convicted felon, and Johnny D. was set to be another victim of the system until Bryan Stevenson rolled into town.

Stevenson is the Harvard-educated lawyer who comes to Alabama to set up the Equal Justice Initiative, a program that offers legal counsel for incarcerated death row inmates. He's played by Michael B. Jordan, who dials into Stevenson's crusade for the truth with steely reserve. 

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton ("Short Term 12"), "Just Mercy" follows a predictable path that is nonetheless rousing due to the strength of its real-life elements.

It feels at times like a '90s John Grisham courtroom tale, and its side players — Oscar winner Brie Larson as Stevenson's underdeveloped business partner Eva; Rafe Spall as a paint-by-numbers racist D.A.; and Tim Blake Nelson, chewing up scenery like a box of Jujyfruits, as a key witness in the case — come off like stock characters.

But Foxx, in his best performance in years, is there to give "Just Mercy" the grounding it needs. In this powerful human tale, he's its stirring soul.

'Just Mercy'


Rated PG-13: for thematic content including some racial epithets

Running time: 137 minutes