Updated: Feb 14, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Bryan A. Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) of the Equal Justice Initiative, leads the defense to overturn the conviction and sentencing of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who had been framed for the murder of an 18-year-old white teenager in Monroeville, Alabama.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2019; PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets; streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: “The Equal Justice Initiative” featurette
IN 1989, Bryan A. Stevenson, a young Harvard trained lawyer, headed to Montgomery, Alabama, to start the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit with a simple mission: To end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States; to challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
Actor Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,” “Black Panther”) plays Stevenson with a strong conviction. “He’s a real-life superhero. When I try to describe him, none of the words are worthy enough,” he says during one of three bonus features. His admiration of Stevenson and how his work became a “life-changing effect on thousands of under-represented people” is genuine. Jordan’s commanding performance is comparable to screen legends Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington.
The straightforward drama comes from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. The main focus is on the unjust treatment and verdict given to Walter “Johnny D” McMillian played by Jamie Foxx in one of his best performances. It’s based on Stevenson’s memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which became a New York Times bestseller in 2014. A family man and self-employed logger, McMillian was framed for the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, the hometown of author Harper Lee. Similarities to Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” are frightening.
(1) McMillian is a self-employed logger in Alabama. (2&3) Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate and his men surround McMillian at a roadblock.
The case was based on shaky “eyewitness” testimony of convicted felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who was threatened with execution if he didn’t point to McMillian as the killer. Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) of Monroe County was pressured to arrest someone, and a white jury, with one black juror, was eager to convict. Judge Robert E. Lee Key overruled the jury’s sentence of life without parole to death by electrocution. Yet McMillian was imprisoned on Alabama’s death row for 15 months even before the trial. After sentencing, he returned to the same cell.
When Jordan’s Stevenson rolls into town, he’s greeted by advocate Eva Ansley played by Brie Larson (“Captain Marvel”). Larson’s career took off after starring in Cretton’s fascinating “Short Term 12” (2013) as a compassionate supervisor at a home for at-risk teens.
Stevenson began the process of overturning McMillian’s conviction and death sentence in 1988. It took six years of hearings and appeals to get the case before the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
“The character of our nation isn’t reflected in how we treat the rich. The true measure of a person’s character is how he treats the poor and the disfavored and condemned.” — Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson
(1) Bryan Stevenson tells his mother goodbye before heading to Alabama. (2) Stevenson arrives in Montgomery and his Operations Manager Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) finds the office space they leased was not going to be honored. (3) Stevenson meets Johnny D McMillian on death row. (4-5) Stevenson gets a warm hug from Johnny D's wife and he meets the family and friends.
Cretton and his longtime cinematographer Brett Pawlak captured the docudrama on 8K digital camera (1.85:1 aspect ratio) which was effectively mastered in TRUE 4K. Still, Warner Brothers decided to only give the digital market the 4K watch, which is quite impressive with a nice touch of film grain digital filtering added. It’s especially evident on Movies Anywhere and Vudu. We found Apple (iTunes) is still applying a slight touch of digital noise reduction to decrease the grain. That’s a no-no.
The 4K is an obvious upgrade in clarity and HDR toning to the Blu-ray version, which still looks very good. A handful of recent TRUE 4K movies for home viewing went exclusive to digital (“Little Women,” “A Hidden Life,” “Richard Jewell” and Best Picture winner “Parasite”). With the studios losing billions from theaters closed globally because of COVID-19, the gap between digital and physical will only become wider.
We note the 4K clarity bump in shots where McMillian cuts down a pine tree. The wide shot of the tree hitting the ground shows every branch within the forest, with an added edge of sharpness, plus the clarity of family and friends waiting for the arrival of McMillian at his home.
HDR toning includes HDR10; Dolby Vision is natural and slightly desaturated, while the HD version leans toward a yellow cast. The facial toning is right on, with varying tones of the multi-ethnic cast.
The 4K digital and Blu-ray both include the expansive Dolby Atmos eight-channel soundtrack, used sparingly while the center channel dialogue comes through clearly in the drama driven story. A simple score from Joel P. West, with a number of gospel choir spotlights, fill the room. The use of classic R&B and gospel tunes is effective with “Ode to Billie Joe” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, “Jesus is With Me” from The Mighty Indiana Travelers, “The Old Rugged Cross” from Ella Fitzgerald, and a second rendition from Karriem Riggins and Lynette Williams.
(1) Convicted felon Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) testifies during a new hearing for Walter McMillian. (2-3) Stevenson and McMillian face a number of challenges and roadblocks.
Cretton, who grew up in Hawaii and was homeschooled by his parents a Japanese American hairdresser and a white firefighter, made sure his crew was diverse, “Because it felt very harmonious to the story we are telling.” He admits some of the scenes were not easy, and felt it was important to have a group of people off-camera to help process those moments. Larson who’s been acting for two decades, said it was the first time the team around her doing hair, makeup and wardrobe, were all people of color. “I felt honored to be the only white person in that room while those conversations were taking place. It was a major education [where I could] learn and grow and become a better ally.”
For script supervisor Amber Harley, the highlight was meeting some of the actual men Stevenson had gotten released from prison, who had cameo roles. “Realizing the facts [where] a man went to prison and didn’t get the chance to have a family or have a job, it was a powerful moment in my life,” she says. Jamie Foxx says, “A project like this is so necessary to keep peeling back the stories of black men.”
Stevenson says, "There’s an absence of mercy in our system. We haven’t valued compassion. And I just wanted that idea to be front and center.”
“Through this work, I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done. The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.” — Bryan Stevenson, before the U.S. Senate Hearing on the Death Penalty
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
(1) After years of denials and delays, Stevenson finally files a motion to dismiss all charges against Mr. McMillian in front of Judge Pamela Baschab of the 28th Judicial Circuit Court of Alabama. (2) The family gathers around Johnny D after the hearing. (3) A celebration awaits the arrival of Johnny D. The 4K digital presentation extracts excellent detail - especially with wide shots.