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MATTHEW LIEDKE ON FILM: 'Just Mercy' powerful portrayal of history makes it worth a watch

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"Just Mercy" takes place nearly 30 years ago, but it's all about an issue that's still debated to this day: the death penalty.

The film explores the origin story of the Equal Justice Initiative and its founder Bryan Stevenson. The non-profit was established in Montgomery, Ala., with a purpose of providing legal representation to those who've been denied a fair trial. This can range from those wrongly convicted, to individuals without funding for good representation.

In the film, Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) begins his organization soon after graduating from Harvard University and goes straight to work with the help of his assistant Eva (Brie Larson). One of the first cases he works on is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man who was wrongly convicted of murder. As part of the process, Stevenson has to backtrack the evidence, prove McMillian's evidence and expose the racism involved.

Storywise, "Just Mercy" is rather pedestrian. The movie has a fairly basic, by-the-books legal procedure holding the story together. There's the research of the case in the second act and the traditional set-back between the second and third acts.

With that said, the execution of said story is so good and it's backed up well by the fine cast here. The movie digs into the issue the characters are dealing with, explores their backgrounds and does so with fine pacing.

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Watching Stevenson investigate and discover new details in McMillian's case is compelling and draws in the audience the whole way through. What makes the film work even more, though, are the supporting characters Stevenson is also working with.

Rob Morgan and O'Shea Jackson Jr. portray two other death row inmates, and each of the characters add another important level of depth to the picture. On top of being based on two real individuals, the inclusion of both characters give the audience a more well rounded idea of the type of people Stevenson has represented.

All of the performances here are very strong, especially from the three leads. It's a talented trio, with Foxx and Larson both being Oscar winners and Foxx having earned an Emmy nomination. Their abilities come through on screen here, especially from Foxx, who portrays a man who's been completely wronged in every which way by the government.

Jordan, meanwhile, provides a mix of optimism and some naivety from being an attorney right out of college. As the movie goes on, Stevenson becomes a stronger legal representative who's entirely dedicated, and Jordan makes it convincing. Larson is great too, portraying a person who is driven by her ideals and remains committed to the cause, even in the face of difficulty.

"Just Mercy" may lack a level of artistic flair that's been included in a few of the other top tier flicks from 2019. However, its main message is so powerful and it's delivered in such great fashion that it becomes an important, compelling viewing experience. I give it 4 out of 5.

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