Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, Rob Morgan
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….this legal drama manages to balance hard truths with an unwaveringly empathetic eye.
The integrity of a society’s character is measured not by the praises of its highest citizens, but by the condemnation of its lowest. This includes the circumstances under which the label of ‘lowest’ is assigned and whether such a declaration is just.
Across racial and economic classes, this integrity has repeatedly been questioned in the United States legal system, and the latest from Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) takes a real-life example of this in action to deliver a potent and righteous offering.
For the most part, this is a production that knows the talent it has on offer and how to best highlight what they are capable of. Michael B. Jordan plays the central role of Bryan Stevenson, a young attorney and advocate for the appeal of the wrongly convicted whose memoir is the script’s source material. Jordan keeps the film’s potential for melodrama held back by how he embodies cautious but learned coolness as he weaves his legal tapestry. Opposite him, Jamie Foxx as death row inmate Walter McMillan is somewhat of a revelation, channelling so much sorrow and bubbling frustration at the system that he appears to tap into a whole new sector of his dramatic range.
O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Rob Morgan as two fellow inmates hit their respective notes nicely, Tim Blake Nelson in his pivotal witness role shows a lot of character strength, and Rafe Spall… well, that’s where the cast consistency begins to slip, as it could not be more evident that a Suh-vern accent isn’t his native tongue. Same goes for Brie Larson, who disappointingly turns in her weakest performance of late for largely the same reason, showing a low point in her and Cretton’s previously-airtight synergy.
As an examination of a biased system, one designed to kick the socially dejected while they’re down, Cretton and Andrew Lanham’s scripting benefits from how it primarily sticks to the facts, both the circumstances around McMillan’s conviction and the ulterior stratagems that inform them.
For the story presented here, told in a post-BLM era, its resistance to syrupy, A-Time-To-Kill-with-less-sweat emotional appeals is quite commendable, which makes its real shots at the heart feel that much more deserved.
From the spiritual-laced soundtrack to the depiction of intersectional classism, right down to a haunting scene where the death row population send off one of their own, this legal drama manages to balance hard truths with an unwaveringly empathetic eye. It makes a point of highlighting that raw ideals aren’t enough to fix the world, and between the precision of its performances (and even the weaker points don’t drag the production down too hard) and its clear-eyed approach to addressing injustice, those ideals are tempered with enough real-world urgency to make them stick. And for a story about racism, its grounded depiction of such behaviour earns it bonus points for not taking the easy route.