As true-story dramas about innocent men on death row go, “Just Mercy” is just above average. I still hope it reaches the widest audience possible. To quote a statistic cited in the film, for every nine prisoners executed in this country, one is found to have been wrongfully convicted. That’s a number to shame a nation.
The casting is especially strong. Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,“ “Black Panther”) plays Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard Law graduate who, against his family’s wishes, moves to Alabama to open the Equal Justice Initiative, aimed at providing legal assistance to condemned prisoners. Brie Larson (“Room,” “Captain Marvel”) is Eva Ansley, the local woman who becomes his director of operations and guide to the mysteries of the South. And Jamie Foxx is his usual terrific self as Walter McMillian, better known as Johnny D., who has been waiting to die for six years for a crime he didn’t commit.
McMillian, who worked as an independent wood pulp worker, had been all day at a family fish fry when Rhonda Morrison, a teenage clerk at a dry-cleaning store in Monroeville, Ala., was found murdered. Nine months later, he was arrested and convicted by an almost entirely white jury on the testimony of a career criminal named Ralph Bernard Myers, despite multiple witnesses establishing McMillian’s alibi. A life sentence was overridden by Judge Robert E. Lee Key Jr., who imposed the death penalty.
“Just Mercy” is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who in his feature debut, “Short Term 12” (2013), showed a deep compassion for society’s outcasts and those trying to help them. The script he has written with Andrew Lanham, based on Stevenson’s 2015 book, doesn’t break free of narrative formula, proceeding chronologically and dutifully through this tale and its turns. Stevenson and Ansley receive bomb threats, plead with witnesses too frightened to testify, and fight hard against an entrenched good-old-boy network that runs from local cops to a corrupt county sheriff (Michael Harding) to a district attorney (Rafe Spall) slow to see the right thing.
What saves the movie from tedium is the rich empathy of the performances and the space Cretton gives his players to create humans rather than archetypes. If Jordan’s Stevenson remains a model of simmering righteous rectitude throughout, Foxx’s Johnny D. is a more complicated sort: a man so long wronged by a racist world that he has dug himself into a hole and sees anyone lowering him a ladder as some kind of a joke.
The camaraderie between him and his death-row neighbors is especially moving: Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a traumatized Vietnam vet who can’t forgive himself for the bombing death he caused, and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr. — Ice Cube’s son), younger, more upbeat, and as insistent as McMillian on his own innocence.
Nor does “Just Mercy” portray Alabama as a wall of entrenched bigotry — just the majority of the law enforcement and judicial systems. We’re given glimpses of a policeman sidelined for refusing to lie, a prison guard (Hayes Mercure) shocked back into humanity by an execution, and — most memorably — a portrayal of the jailbird false witness, Myers, by Tim Blake Nelson, that is at times heartbreaking in its depiction of a warped and wrecked spirit. And through Larson’s Ansley, we see a segment of the South quietly pushing uphill against centuries of punishing inequality, despite the civic smugness coursing through the hometown of Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Stevenson is repeatedly urged to go over to the Mockingbird Museum, where he can stand “right where Atticus stood.”)
Through the characters of McMillian’s long-suffering wife (Karan Kendrick), son (C.J. LeBlanc), and community, we see the effects of that inequality and a hope that is casually extinguished every day, only to be cautiously reignited the next. These images, rather than the fine speeches the script gives Stevenson toward the end, are what remain with you when the lights come up. That and the bone-deep satisfaction of seeing justice at long last done. Unlike many movies “based on a true story,” “Just Mercy” sticks close to the facts of the case — for the simple reason that the facts are drama enough.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, based on a book by Bryan Stevenson. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 136 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content, some racial epithets).