The deep South in the 80’s (or any time of the year, for that matter) ain’t no place to be if you’re black. Just ask Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a poor man arrested nearly a year later for a murder he never committed. No evidence, no DNA, no proof he was there except for scummy Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who gave sworn testimony in exchange for less time shaved off his own conviction. Years later in Alabama, in strolls a young idealistic Harvard educated lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) who has a grand idea: start an organization (the Equal Justice Initiative) to free wrongly convicted felons. A smart black lawyer in Alabama? Yeah, good luck to ya there, pal!
Teaming up Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), another idealistic person, they set their sights on local Holman Penitentiary and several inmates like Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, jr), Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), and McMillian. At once Bryan can see that, not only was Walter was falsely imprisoned, but this might be that case he’s been looking for. But it’s not going to be that easy, especially when local corrupt Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) and the new racist district attorney in town, Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall), are making his life (and work) difficult as Hell. Through perseverance and set-backs, Bryan keeps on trying to get to the truth of the matter with Myers, old files, and key witnesses.
Finally, with enough proof (and help from a timely 60 Minutes TV segment), he gets enough to go to court to show that his client was railroaded, and asks for a new trial, but there are unforeseen problems that crop up. If you kept up with current events, by now you know that McMillian was eventually freed, but OH! The trials & tribulations on getting there! The screenplay is by director Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle) and based on Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
I think the main problem here is that, while this is supposed to be true story of racism, corruption, and false imprisonment, it couldn’t but help but go a little overboard in certain areas. Take for example the character of Ralph Myers, played by Tim Blake Nelson. His performance is that of an over-the-top, redneck, Southern scenery-chewing hillbilly that talks on the side of his mouth (prior stroke?), but if you watch the 60 Minutes TV interview with the real Myers, he’s the complete opposite! Why then the cartoonish appearance? And it’s like that for others as well. Was that for dramatic appeal or to make the movie more interesting? You decide.
At over two hours, it does get a bit bogged down, but Jordan holds this movie together with his fierce determination and perennial scowl, but his Stevenson really needed to lighten up to show more of a range. Larson is his plus-one and has that Southern charm that film (and his character) needed, but it’s Jamie Foxx that has the most understated performance of all. After seeing him in roles like Django Unchained and even that goofy Robin Hood movie, that man was seriously underutilized.
Director Cretton, as it turns out, is a rather new at this, having done very little in the past, and stuff you’ve never heard of. And although he sticks the landing for this film, the overall execution comes off as weak and tepid. Given the subject matter, the movie should have been given more of a one-two punch, than a simple retelling of facts and research. If watching a 1990’s TV rerun about the McMillian case is more interesting than the movie, then something is wrong.
The Hurricane (1999)
Based on the books, The Sixteenth Round: From Number #1 Contender To 45472 by Rubin Carter and the non-fiction work Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Freeing of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, this movie tells two separate stories.
Flash-backs, flash-forwards, and parallel storylines weave the true tale of a young boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, his horrible life inside the State penal institution, his consequent escape and time in the Armed Forces, and then his triumphant, although brief time as a prize fighter. We see Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington) in prison for a crime he never committed, instead, he (and another) were convicted by Dct. Sgt. Della Pesca (Dan Hedaya), a bigoted, racist cop who had it in for Rubin all his life.
In 1966, Rubin was a top-ranked middleweight boxer, expected by many to be the world’s next champion. But three white victims were brutally gunned down by two black assailants in a local bar in Paterson. Carter and his friend were driving home, were stopped, interrogated, and thrown in jail on trumped-up charges, false testimony, and lies. Sentenced to two life terms, Rubin vowed to make things right, but only got kindness from his one prison guard (Clancy Brown) as he writes his book proclaiming his innocence.
The second story then starts with three Canadian social workers (Liev Schrieber, John Hannah, and Deborah Kara Unger) who have taken in a young black tween named Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon) as their ward. This kid reads Rubin’s book, contacts him, and a friendship starts. Pretty soon, Lesra and his friends are caught up in Rubin’s history and how he was railroaded. Wanting to help him in appealing his case, they go to his lawyers (David Paymer & Harris Yulin) and start their own private investigating. After uncovering lost transcripts, missing files, and doing an exhausting and meticulous search, Team Rubin have their proof of corruption against Carter.
In 1985, a Federal District Court judge (Rod Steiger) ruled that the prosecution in Carter’s trial committed “grave constitutional violations” and that his original conviction was based on racism rather than facts. As a result, Carter was finally freed! Based on the books, the adapted screenplay by Dan Gordon (Passenger 57) and Armyan Bernstein (Cross My Heart) is riveting, calculating, and defies the normal linear movie storytelling format. Sometimes that proves to be detrimental, but in this case, it works. And it works because of the director.
Norman Jewison is an underrated director that really should be given more credit. His catalog of work (The Russians Are Coming…, Fiddler on the Roof, A Soldiers Story) ranks right up there with the best, and this film is no exception. Rich in detail and deeply emotional, his eye for filming and capturing the raw moment is incredible. Of course, having Denzel Washington as your lead sure doesn’t hurt you, either! How good was he? He nabbed a much deserved Best Actor Oscar for his role in this film.