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Posts Tagged ‘Destin Daniel Cretton’

To begin at the end, just for a change:

‘Can I just mention,’ I said to the multiplex minions on the way out of the building, ‘that I saw a mouse this evening?’

‘A mouse? Where?’

‘Up in screen three.’

‘Where in screen three?’

‘Right there.’

This was turning into an old Ronnie Hilton song, and I attempted to head off this unwelcome development. ‘It was scurrying down the aisle in the middle of the movie. I don’t think it had a ticket.’ The last part probably wasn’t necessary, in hindsight.

Now, if I were running a cinema, the existence of rodents running amuck in the auditoria would be a cause of some concern for me, but the minons looked amused more than anything else, and not particularly inclined to do anything. They thanked me for raising the issue but did not look particularly inclined to break out the elephant gun, or indeed the butterfly nets.

Then again it seemed to be weird behaviour night at the Odeon, for quite apart from the staff being on the happy pills and our four-legged-friend acting like it owned the place, I distinctly saw one person sitting on top of another in the back row of the same screen we were in. God knows the seats at Odeon are not always great, but even so. It was almost enough to distract one from Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, which would have been a regrettable occurrence.

The movie is another of those based-on-a-true-story dramas which we tend to get a lot of at this time of year. In this case the story mostly takes place in Alabama, in the late eighties and early nineties. Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, an idealistic young lawyer fresh out of Harvard, who – despite the understandable misgivings of certain family members – heads down to the state to set up an agency specialising in giving legal support to prisoners who have no other access to it. It almost goes without saying that this meets with a certain degree of resistance from some of the locals (they have trouble getting office space, and so on). Assisting him in this is a dedicated local woman, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).

One of the men who Stevenson encounters is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), on death row after being convicted of the murder of a young white woman. McMillian is a bitter man who has surrendered to despair after being very ill-served by his court-appointed lawyers, but Stevenson quickly becomes convinced that McMillian’s conviction is profoundly unsound – the case for the prosecution was founded on the evidence of a felon, offered in return for a deal, while the testimony of dozens of McMillian’s friends and family providing him with an alibi was not even considered in court. Proving his innocence would seem to be a relatively straightforward matter – but there is a deep-seated resistance to re-opening the case, and institutional prejudice in the D.A.’s office and the sheriff’s department. Does justice still mean anything in this part of America?

Truth be told, I turned up to Just Mercy quite prepared to be very glib and cynical about it – I believe I may even have referred to it a little dismissively in passing as ‘a quality drama in which a young lawyer confronts racial prejudice’ and as being part of a slew of ‘social justice movies about the Black experience in contemporary America’, the subtext being that this was a fairly calculated attempt to create something that feels timely, with the right kind of political stance. And to some extent it is exactly this kind of movie, which has certainly appeared in cinemas at just the right time to potentially draw awards attention.

You can certainly sense the film trying to position itself, not least as part of a feted tradition of American movies about racial issues in the southern states: Just Mercy repeatedly namechecks To Kill a Mockingbird, and there is certainly a touch of In the Heat of the Night to the various scenes in which Jordan clashes with the local establishment. Other elements of it do feel just a little too much like studio Hollywood – Tim Blake Nelson comes on and delivers an arguably slightly overcooked performance as an eccentric felon, and Rafe Spall is a touch too weaselly as the District Attorney opposing a review of the case. Brie Larson has been issued with a somewhat unflattering hairstyle and is doing a thick accent, which are basically signs this is the sort of ‘character’ performance with the potential to get a comely young actress nominated for things.

And yet, and yet. As mentioned, I turned up fully prepared to keep my distance, decode the movie’s political anglings, keep track of the boxes it was ticking, and so on – but rather to my surprise, I very quickly found myself being thoroughly drawn into the story and actually coming to care about the characters and their situation. I have very little explanation for this other than the fact that the film falls back on traditional film-making virtues like a well-written script, strong performances, and capable direction. It also treats the viewer with intelligence, which shouldn’t be worthy of a mention but sadly is. There is not one element of the film which is openly flashy or attention-grabbing or gimmicky, but as a whole it works highly effectively: the film is powerful and moving while remaining, for the most part, understated.

In the middle of it all is Michael B Jordan, who gives an excellent performance. Jordan has been turning up and doing good work in all manner of movies for the last few years, and here he gets to lead a big, serious film, and does so with impressive aplomb. He brings strength, dignity and nobility to the part, without overdoing any of these things; he also manages to project vulnerability and occasional naivety at the same time. As the film goes on there is a tendency for him just to be given a lot of speechifying to do, but he even handles this very well. He shows every sign of becoming a significant figure in mainstream American cinema.

In the end this is a film about racial tensions in contemporary America (although there is a convenient distancing effect provided by the fact it’s set over a quarter of a century ago), which also has things to say about the grotesqueness of capital punishment. But it works so well because it focuses on the characters as human beings, rather than openly being about a theme or having a particular message to give. By the time the film does put its cards on the table, at the very end, it has earned your attention and guaranteed you listen to what it has to say. This is still not the most original movie around on this theme at the moment, but it is still one of high quality and well worth your time.

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