Just Mercy 2019 ****

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The American Academy acted to ensure that race and gender bias would not be an on-going issue; the lack of recognition for Destin Daniel Creton’s Just Mercy in terms of coveted Oscar nominations suggest they will have to go further.  This is a compelling drama about wrongful accusation, race and capital punishment that should be a good bet for recognition. The shunning of this, and of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in tv/streaming awards, suggests that Just Mercy will have to settle for satisfying its own audience. It sets a bad example for the US academy to view and then not recognise strong work due to the race or gender of the film-makers; there’s considerable evidence that this happened in 2019/2020.

Michael B Jordan doesn’t have much to go on as lawyer Bryan Stevenson, but the actor’s charisma and personable approach take him a long way. He’s strip-searched on his way to Death Row, where he interviews a number of potential clients, notably Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). The temporary loss of Steven’s dignity is nothing compared to McMillian’s long terms incarceration for a crime that doesn’t have any existing evidence for. Stevenson makes contact with a number of Death Row inmates, the execution of one of whom forms a key moment here. But with the improbably glamorous Eva (Brie Larson) shuffling the papers, it’s an aspirational fight for justice that keeps dignity until a swirl of celestial choirs overwhelm the final scenes.

Miscarriages of justice make for compelling cinema, and Just Mercy gains from being based on Stevenson’s book about the real-life case. There are touches of worldly humor; when Stevenson finds cassettes relating to a false confession and asks for permission to copy them, the black woman manning the evidence desk shrugs and says ‘They ain’t paying me enough to stop you.’ Such interludes are welcome, because Just Mercy feels a little sanctimonious at times; it feels like McMillian’s cynical voice is too often left off-screen.

Such nit-picking aside, Just Mercy has a strong relevance to the black experience of America in 2020. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ says Stevenson, and the thrust of the film is that black communities will have to help themselves, because no-one else will be willing to right the wrong perpetrated against them. That’s a truth worth articulating, whether white-dominated awards bodies recognise it or not.

When They See Us 2019 ****

The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome.  This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives.  White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80200549?source=35