Film & TV

Just Mercy Proves Art Is Not Activism

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy (Warner Bros.)
Brian Banks is the best of recent prison-reform movies.

Three movies Just Mercy, Brian Banks, and Clemency make up the recent boom of criminal-justice-reform movies. It’s been a boom without reverberation — a boomlet — because the trend of activist filmmaking doesn’t really satisfy the movie-going urge.

Not even Michael B. Jordan, the charismatic star of Creed, can lift Just Mercy out of do-gooder drudgery. Jordan’s angry, studly strutting was the only captivating part of Black Panther, and his youthful appeal is misunderstood once again by the makers of Just Mercy when Jordan is cast as virtuous Harvard grad and social activist Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson goes to Alabama and founds the Equal Justice Initiative to help wrongly convicted prisoners. His first case, derived from Stevenson’s real-life memoir, concerns pulpwood worker Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), whose incarceration for murder was based on a perjured testimony. It takes a while for the plot to bring these two black men together, yet their meeting lacks personal and social frisson. McMillan is yet another Southern black victim, and Stevenson is eager to be his savior. In self-righteous Hollywood terms, this is To Kill a Mockingbird all over again, laying out familiar inequality issues in an obvious though not straightforward manner. The only difference is that Foxx submerges into the dark, mysterious dirt of countrified misery and acts rings around Jordan.

I won’t overrate Foxx’s credible performance because, while bringing a sense of experience to contrast with Jordan’s sweetly callow youthfulness, it’s still a victim cliché. After Stevenson gives McMillan some hope, Foxx does a lousy speech about “getting my truth back” and has to exclaim, “If they kill me today, I go to that electric chair with a smile.” Only a banjo playing “Dixie,” or a boombox blasting Tupac, is missing.

What’s left is Stevenson’s self-righteousness — his savior complex — and here is where the activist filmmakers director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham reveal their complacency. When the McMillan case stalls due to a racist white judge and prosecutor, Stevenson commiserates with local white liberal Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) and, in a riverside scene with a riverboat in the distance, gives a valedictorian speech — the film’s statement of purpose:

Nobody wants to remember that this is where thousands of enslaved people were shipped in and were paraded up the street to be sold. Just ten miles from here, black people were pulled from their houses and lynched. Nobody talks about it. And now this black boy from Delaware walks into their courtroom and expects them to admit they convicted an innocent black man. I just made things worse.

Jordan’s pouty cheeks with bearded scruff next to Larson’s Captain Marvel petulance (she’s a foul-mouthed Greek chorus of progressivism) looks childish. In this maudlin, soul-baring moment, neither actor seems to know what they’re talking about — only that they’re sad, angry, and superior.

Cretton, a moral tourist and skeptic (he previously directed Larson’s at-risk-youth movie Short Term 12), follows that “Ol’ Man River” duet with another bad idea: a silent church scene that denies power to gospel worship and faith. Stevenson seems disconnected from the rootsy praise service, but his subsequent 60 Minutes interview on CBS does the trick. McMillan is freed, and Stevenson pontificates, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice.” After such smug sophistry, Stevenson and McMillan do a brotherly fist bump that Cresson clumsily frames behind a pitcher of water.

***

Aldis Hodge and Sherri Shepherd in Brian Banks (Bleecker Street/Sony Pictures)

Emotional clarity makes the difference between Just Mercy and Brian Banks, which could have been just another activist movie but for its exceptional sensitivity to character, not stereotype. Based on Banks’s actual experience being unjustly convicted of rape at age 16, losing his prospective career in football, and then released as a registered sex offender, the film avoids blame, judgment, and preaching.

This even-handed approach gives sympathy to Banks (Aldis Hodge) as well as his accuser Kennisha (Xosha Rocquemore), his prayerful mother (Sherri Shepherd), and his attorney from the California Innocence Project, Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear). The film’s legal drama is not politicized but humanized, which may account for the film’s unpopularity and its being dumped by critics — as happened to Raymond DeFelitta’s fine and unjustly dismissed Bottom of the 9th.

Both films observed not merely social injustice but the conflicted emotions of people who feel variously wronged, as well as their different methods of achieving forgiveness and recovering their humanity. Banks’s pathos matches that shown to Kennisha — a remarkable feat of storytelling that Just Mercy never achieves with its pathetic hillbilly perjurer (Tim Blake Nelson).

Director Tom Shadyac respects the moral clarity in the Brian Banks screenplay by Doug Atchison, who also wrote the moving Akeelah and the Bee, another keen observation of individual action over activism. Like Akeelah, Brian Banks has moments of Spielberg-like richness when human gestures (including a surprising, graceful cameo appearance) inspire sympathy and understanding.

***

Clemency is art-movie activism, and it collapses from the lack of emotional grace. Chinonye Chukwu writes and directs the kind of thesis movie that wins grants and festival prizes. She takes on prison reform by detailing how black female warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) breaks down after supervising yet another Death Row execution.

Chukwu’s premise ignores the fact that Bernadine is just plain unsuited for her chosen profession. The capital-punishment issue is separate from concepts of justice, but it’s all the same for activist filmmakers. Woodard, a wonderfully resourceful actress, fully commits to Chukwu’s conceit. She unpacks her bag of neurotic tics, which, in retrospect, does a disservice to her previously sensitive, revelatory characterizations (Altman’s Health, Cross Creek, Miss Evers’ Boys). As the convict who shatters Bernardine’s composure, the ebony Aldis Hodge has a physical presence that’s more striking than his Brian Banks performance. Chukwu sees him as a gorgeous symbol of injustice like a Betye Saar statue or Augusta Savage’s famous Lift Every Voice and Sing sculpture. He’s beautiful, and yet that beauty diminishes the social complexity he is meant to represent. The idea that art is activism is just a woke pretense.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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