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Just Mercy

19 Jan

Just Mercy—directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Docudrama. 147 minutes Color 2020.
★★★★★
The Story: A law student volunteers in the Alabama prisons and, after he earns his law degree in Harvard, comes back to Alabama to free the wrongly accused, his first case being a thorny one.

Docudramas stand tall in recent releases. Boy Erased tells of the experience in and liberation from a homosexual cure institution. And here Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson join forces to fight for the liberation from an institution of a misprision of justice so ruddy its racial suppression had to be fast, sudden, final, and resolutely colluded in.

We don’t go to such movies to see character development or even depth of motivation. All those are “given,” — meaning tacit — meaning the audience must supply them — and indeed the audience wants to do just that. It knows how to. Each audience member is watching this dramatization of a piece of history in order to be informed, to follow gratefully history’s deep complications, setbacks, casualties. We do not watch Hamlet for Danish history. And we do not watch docudrama for the kind of high tragedy Elsinore delivers in Hamlet.

No. Docudrama offers a great and different drama for our interiors in tension, urgency, inspiration, education, concern for the living or once living. I Want to Live with Susan Hayward is a more harrowing audience experience than Star Wars. We go right into the gas chamber with her and all the delay and clumsy ritual attached. We die for her. We weep for her human suffering, for she was once a living being. Docudramas enlarge our compassion. And we leave the theatre determined to ally ourselves with the right side, take up causes in conversations and marches, write to our representatives, or back up our stirred ideals with contributions. And when the curtain comes down, we applaud all those involved for having the guts to tell the truth finally.

Just Mercy fully lives up the potential of the form.

Mind you, docudrama acting performances do not as a rule have an arc. Characters do not necessarily start somewhere and slowly and eventually end up internally somewhere else. Here they certainly do not. What you have here is an actor, Michael B. Jordan, who remains stalwart throughout — and that is as it should be. He is an actor who can hold the screen like nobody’s business — with his fine carriage, spacious face, sensitive instrument, and keen, open, direct gaze in which so much can be read because nothing is forced or imposed. All he need do is remain before us to convince of his firmness of purpose. As an actor he makes everything — the merest furrow of his brow — as small as he can — which is also correct — for it induces the audience to put themselves in his shoes.

Brie Larson plays his second in command, and the opening position the actress assumes of adherence to her cause encases her in the easy strength of loyalty to the business at hand. No hanky-panky, here but always at work toward the realization of justice for the wrongly condemned. It is a performance of humor and refusal to steal a single scene. No character development here, either. For the character remains as she started, and if the character did not, there would be no story to tell. Kudos to her.

Jaimie Foxx as the death row prisoner is less reserved, but the role clamors for emotion and tempts him into it, which ever and ever deprives the audience of feeling it themselves. Actual his change comes early in the story and his character remains constant afterwards.

I won’t disbar myself from your love by describing the great scenes, but, besides these, there are super-duper performances. Tim Black Nelson in a very well-written part as the false witness —is he up for an Oscar for this? Rafe Spall as the D.A. you want to strangle but it’s always too late; he walks around inside the role so that you never know where he will finally come out from it, if at all. Ted Huckabee as the sheriff holds the insolence of his position in wise reserve. Hayes Mercure creates a story without words of a prison guard who finds his lost humanity as the great case of righting the wrong unfolds.

Docudramas provide a great theatrical experience all their own. Each member of its audience creates in themself the response system particular to the form. Arcing inside each member are the emotional eyes which know how to see this form, experience it, enjoy it, weigh it. Those intestinal eyes are bent upon the form in ways which in some ways do blend with those which Hamlet requires, but they are essentially a system all their own.

Bryan Stevenson was the young lawyer who came back to Alabama with a mandate to free the unjustly condemned to death-row. 135 prisoners have by now and by his efforts been freed from that malign fate — many of them accused on racial grounds — to become cases of bitter and frustrated freedom, as did Walter McMillian.

The fight does not end with this movie or his deeds. And this movie revitalized us in the certainly that Stevenson’s fights are all our fights and thrill us to engage in.

 
 
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