“Just Mercy” (2020)–“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”

A powerful true story about the 1989 founding of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based upon Bryan Stevenson’s  2014 bestseller of the same name, Just Mercy.    EJI, located in Montgomery, Alabama –and situated near the Museum of Peace and Justice (a Stevenson project focusing on the US history of lynching and slavery)–  is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.  EIJ challenges racial and economic injustice, protects basic human rights for the most vulnerable and shines a spotlight on structural racism.  Just Mercy reveals a justice system that “treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” Stevenson underscores the faith in the better side of human nature:  “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,”  he maintains.

In an opening scene, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx of “Ray”), is stopped by a posse of police determined not only to arrest him for the murder of an 18-year old white woman but also to ensure he is found guilty.  McMillian is Bryan Stevenson’s first client. Freshly graduated from Harvard law, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan of “Creed”), is committed to giving back to his community. He has made it his mission to defend those on death row he feels were wrongfully convicted.  (Additionally, Alabama is the only state in the country not to assign legal representation to prisoners on death row who wish to appeal their sentences.)  

Hopeful at first that reason,  evidentiary documents and witnesses will result in justice, Stevenson soon realizes that he was naive. At first he is  unaware of the risks he is taking and of the threat he represents as  an elite educated powerhouse of a young Black attorney.  He quickly learns how  to maneuver in a historically Jim Crow state, despite being  viewed exclusively as another Black man to be denied the power that the legal system  provides to attorneys.   Ignoring evidence of McMillian’s innocence, the county prosecutor and police sheriff have other motivations.

Feeling more  like a true-crime drama rather than a memoir, Just Mercy is both disturbing and hopeful.  A staggering set of performances by both Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give this film its heft.    The undoing of mass incarceration is another matter.

Note:  Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur Grant recipient dedicated to undoing mass incarceration in the US, asserts that mass incarceration is the devolution of the justice system rooted in over four hundred years of lynching and kangaroo courts in American society.  For other reviews on this theme,  see: “Scottsboro–The Inexcusable” (July 10, 2012);  “Slavery By Another Name” (September 18, 2016); and “13“–An Unlucky Number (April 24, 2017).

“Baby Driver”–For Millennials

Baby Driver movie review
[Originally published for Blog Critics, July 3, 2017]

The highly praised feature film Baby Driver, starring newcomer Ansel Elgort as Baby, tells the story of a millenial car driver getting in and out of trouble while trying to capture the love of his life. Baby drives fast and furiously, shifting gears and tapping tunes he hears on this iPod (yes, an iPod) on his steering wheel while waitng for the criminal types he chauffeurs around to complete their heists–robbing banks and the post office.

Baby’s boss, Doc, (the incomparable Kevin Spacey in a role not deserving of his talent) is owed a debt from Baby, providing the motivation for the young getaway driver’s awful choices in job options and companions. One of the criminals, Buddy, (played by Jon Hamm, again, a waste of this actor’s abilities), seems to empathize with Baby at times, instead of humiliating him. A psychopathological maniac, Bats (Jamie Foxx, what were you thinking?), provides much of the gratuitous gore. A kindly foster father (played by C J Jones) offers one of the only heartbeats indicating humanity.

Baby Driver is first and foremost, about, sensational car chases and these are some of the most choreographed this viewer has ever seen. The cars rev up to mostly 70’s music with preposterous outcomes and perfect timing for comic effect. Furthermore, Baby has tinnitus, which he drowns out with his iPod, providing killer timing and the graceful rhythms his body dances to while walking, weaving in and out of the crowd as if driving on the streets of Atlanta.

A car-centric crime drama, with the actors timing their movements to the soundtrack, Baby Driver features constant, often glamorized violence. There are several mass shootings, with machine-gun deaths choreographed to music. You’ll also see several car accidents with splintering glass and bloody dead bodies, sudden deaths, blood, and gore. Many of the characters eventually die sudden, terrible deaths. Female characters are stereotypes, ogled by both the characters and the camera.

While this movie will continue to receive accolades and become a box office hit (released June 28), its target demographic–millennial guys–may be sufficient to gather some award nominations. The main actor, Ansel Elgort, holds the viewer’s attention, a babyfaced Patrick Swayze, who will almost certainly have more challenging roles offered in the future. Similar to “Drive”, Baby Driver has less story and convincing dialog. I would not recommend this one to non-millennial viewers. We are the wrong demographic.