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VAFF’s ‘Just Mercy’ is just captivating

Festival’s opening night film tells essential history with beauty

<p>Michael B. Jordan plays civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson in "Just Mercy," which opened the Virginia Film Festival Wednesday night. &nbsp;</p>

Michael B. Jordan plays civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson in "Just Mercy," which opened the Virginia Film Festival Wednesday night.  

The choice of film for the Virginia Film Festival’s opening night film carries considerable weight. In fact, it’s arguably the most important movie shown at the festival, the closing night film being its only real competition. The opening sets the tone for the next three days — or four, as is the case this year. It must be a crowd-pleasing, big-studio production while simultaneously providing more food for thought than other blockbusters.

It’s a difficult list of prerequisites to fulfill and — depending on what movies are traveling the festival circuit in a given year — the appropriate choice may not exist. VAFF nailed it three years ago by selecting “Loving,” and this year, with Bryan Stevenson biopic “Just Mercy,” they have again hit upon the perfect film for the occasion.

Many aspects of the Wednesday night event were identical to years prior. The Paramount Theater was packed, as opening night films unsurprisingly tend to sell out, and it was largely an older white audience, as tends to be the demographic for these screenings. Jody Kielbasa, Vice Provost for the Arts at the University and Director of VAFF, took the stage to introduce both “Just Mercy” and the festival itself. He also used the time to thank the festival’s many donors, employees and volunteers, as well as to admire the “stunning, historic movie palace” of the Paramount.

A newer tradition followed Kielbasa’s speech — University President Jim Ryan also spoke onstage to further introduce the film. This is Ryan’s second year of introducing the opening night film, having given “Green Book” the same treatment in 2018.

Ryan said that when he was in high school, learning about the Civil Rights movement and the lawyers associated with it had inspired him to become one himself. He called Stevenson a “modern-day vision” of those lawyers. 

“He embodies and expresses our nation’s conscience,” Ryan said. “If only more would listen.”

With such an introduction, even those unfamiliar with Stevenson’s story could predict what was to come. “Just Mercy” opens in Monroeville, Alabama, with Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) being arrested for the murder of young, white Ronda Morrison — a crime it is immediately obvious he did not commit. Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), an idealistic lawyer fresh out of Harvard, sets up shop in Monroeville to help McMillan and those like him, death row inmates lacking adequate legal service.

Once Stevenson recognizes McMillan’s innocence and how shamelessly he has been framed by local law enforcement, the lawyer dedicates all his efforts to exonerating McMillan and rescuing him from death row.

It’s impossible not to compare — and, more importantly, contrast — this movie with last year’s festival opener “Green Book.” The surface-level similarities between the two films are remarkable. Both are dramatizations of true stories about race relations in the twentieth century, meaning that both were included in the festival’s “Race in America” series. Both were introduced jointly by Kielbasa and Ryan. And of course, both kicked off the rest of the festival of their respective years.

The key difference here is execution. “Green Book” is a cute but tame movie, choosing to say little of relevance about race — although the Academy apparently disagrees. Conversely, “Just Mercy” is a poignant exploration of race, crime, family and the concept of innocence. It packs a punch — sometimes painful, but never gratuitous — while “Green Book” is content to pat its viewers on the backs.

Part of the contrast is subject matter, of course. McMillan is fighting for his extremely precarious life and as a result, every scene is imbued with a sense of urgency. The discomfort this urgency caused in the Paramount crowd was nearly palpable. Whenever there was a hint of comic relief, laughter rippled throughout the theater.

But “Green Book” is about a black man traveling through the Deep South some 30 years before the events of the Stevenson biopic. Although Don Shirley’s life wasn’t endangered in the same way as the black inmates of “Just Mercy,” he faced incredible discrimination that “Green Book” presented with a maddening glibness. The events in “Just Mercy” have a much grimmer onscreen depiction, receiving their deserved severity.

That said, the film rarely feels like a melodrama. It’s rooted by understated performances from Brie Larson, who plays Stevenson’s fellow advocate Eva Ansley, and Tim Blake Nelson, whose portrayal of Ralph Myers — the criminal whose false testimony initially put McMillan behind bars — is complex, infuriating, and ultimately pitiable. Foxx as McMillan is also fantastic, giving nuance to a man embittered by the lack of justice in the justice system, a man who is guilty of some wrongdoing — just not what he’s been convicted for.

At the center of “Just Mercy” is, of course, Stevenson — but it doesn’t feel that way. Jordan’s handling of the role is capable, though not magnificent, and probably the least memorable part of the film. Rather than write this off as mediocre acting, it makes more sense to view Jordan’s performance as thematically in keeping with the rest of “Just Mercy.” It’s a Stevenson biopic, but Stevenson isn’t the focus — his actions are. His stated career purpose is to provide voices for the voiceless and subsequently, his own voice fades into the background of the film, acting as its moral center but not its most interesting feature.

Aside from their fits of nervous laughter, the audience responded in kind to the extreme emotions of “Just Mercy.” More than one scene elicited a theater’s worth of sniffles, and as the film neared its conclusion, it received three different thunderous rounds of applause before it actually ended and got its fourth and final ovation.

As the crowds of people filed out of the Paramount and onto the Downtown Mall, a feeling of heightened emotions remained in the buzzing chatter and quick movements of the theater-goers. A few were still wiping tears from their cheeks, while others were nearly shouting from the intensity of what they’d just seen. Everyone was talking. The opening night film had done its job, encouraging conversation and fostering a sense of community that lasted through the end of the weekend.