This movie reminded me a lot of the movie Brian Banks from a few months ago. That was a true story, based on a football player wrongly accused of rape, and the California Innocence Project getting involved to help him out.
Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that helps poor prisoners in need of legal help. When a Harvard graduate does a job like this, making a lot less money than he could at a big law firm, he is to be commended.
So former Point Loma Nazarene and SDSU student and writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton gave Stevenson a film version. Stevenson is played by Michael B. Jordan, who does an outstanding job playing this character with restraint. We watch as he moves to Alabama to work. As he drives a ratty old car, passing the finely manicured lawns and big houses, we hear the Alabama Shakes on the radio. That scene is the perfect way to convey a variety of things, and it only took a few minutes. I wish Tarantino would do that, instead of showing Brad Pitt driving down Sunset, with three different songs playing, in a 15 minute scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But I digress.
You can’t help but think about Stevenson as an Atticus Finch, especially since everyone in town wants to tell him about the Harper Lee museum (which is also a subtle, interesting thing from residents that probably have a bit of racism coursing through their veins).
Stevenson quickly takes on the case of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who is on death row for killing an 18-year-old white woman. When we see the pre-title sequence in 1987, when he’s being arrested, it’s the first cringe worthy moment. Not just because we know he’s innocent, but because the cop arresting him has to mouth off about how he likes to run around on his wife and likes white women, and…McMillian looks up he notices cops with guns drawn approaching his car. I’m guessing if you’re an officer thinking this man did this crime, you’re not casually chatting him up, and making accusations. You’re quickly getting him out of the car.
The next scene that had my eyes rolling, was when Stevenson goes to talk to him and five other prisoners, and an officer is telling him he’d have to strip down. He objects at first, but soon goes to the backroom and has to take off every stitch of clothing. The guard also tells him to “bend over and spread ‘em” before laughing and telling him “You’re good.”
I’m wondering why a lawyer would go along with this. He would obviously know that you don’t have to strip down to see a prisoner. Perhaps a pat down at most. Luckily, the movie calms down with all that BS, and the rest of the characters all seem to act and say things that felt more realistic. Even the cliche scene of cops pulling him over to harass him, felt realistic.
I don’t mind the manipulative things done in building the dramatic tension, the problem this movie has is that we’ve seen so many films like this; and this movie doesn’t add anything all that different.
The performance by Jamie Foxx is serviceable, but nothing special. There was a nice small role for O’Shea Jackson, Jr., as a fellow Death Row inmate. Brie Larson (as Eve Ansley), sports a distracting wig, and isn’t anything special in the role (but she became a star after starring in Cretton’s Short Term 12).
My favorite performance was from Darrell Britt-Gibson (The Wire, Keanu, Barry), as someone that was a witness in the original case, and he might add testimony to help with a retrial. The worst performance was Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). He’s just a bit over-the-top with his tics and behavior, as the prisoner that was originally coerced into giving damning testimony about McMillian.
Even though the course of the story is predictable (even if you don’t know the details of the case), it does have a number of moving scenes. When Stevenson first visits with the family, it was done wonderfully. They’re expressing their doubts, and he’s assuring them he can get something done (it helps that he tells them the legal fees are covered). Another story involves an old soldier (Rob Morgan), who suffered PTSD and might get the electric chair for a bomb he left on someone’s porch.
There’s also tension knowing that people in town don’t care for this lawyer, working for a prisoner they are sure killed a young woman.
I was surprised at how well done the scenes were when Stevenson meets with the D.A. or officers involved in the case. You can tell they’re angry with him, but are trying hard to behave professionally. They’re not just acting like an updated version of Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night.
Overall, the movie is interesting enough to watch. It’s a bit heavy-handed and formulaic, and comes off as a Lifetime movie. It’s basically Oscar bait.
2 ½ stars out of 5.