'Just Mercy': why the true life film of a black lawyer in Alabama is more relatable than ever today
American lawyer Bryan Stevenson has helped countless of innocent African Americans through his Equal Justice Initiative
In 1989, a 30-year-old lawyer named Bryan Stevenson moved to Montgomery, Alabama, with one goal: to give a lifeline to people unfairly trapped inside the US justice system. There, through his organisation, the Equal Justice Initiative, he found countless African Americans who were victims of systemic racism, having been profiled, unfairly tried and often condemned to die without receiving an adequate defence.
About 30 years later, Stevenson has become renowned for helping many men unfairly convicted, giving them back their lives and dignity. Stevenson even successfully lobbied the Supreme Court to forbid people under the age of 18 from being condemned to death or given life in prison without parole.
Just Mercy, a film directed by Destin Daniel Crettin, tells the story of one of Stevenson’s first and most important cases. In 1987, he met a man on death row named Walter McMillian, who had been convicted of murdering a white woman he said he never met. Examining the facts of the case, Stevenson discovered McMillian was seemingly framed by a justice system that simply wanted to find someone to blame. Though McMillian had already given up hope, Stevenson persisted, spending four years doing everything he could to stop McMillian’s execution and return him to his wife and children.
Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, who plays McMillian in Just Mercy, says he didn’t understand the extent of the injustice in that case until he met Stevenson at the offices of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.
“He explained to me in our first couple of meetings that one out of every nine persons on death row is innocent,” Foxx says. “At first I didn’t get it. Then he says, ‘well, let me make it plain. Imagine there are 50 apples in this bucket, and I told you for every 10, there’s one that will kill you if you eat it. Do you still want to eat from that bucket?’ I was like, ‘wow’.”
Michael B Jordan, who portrays Stevenson in the film, is no stranger to bringing stories of injustice and systemic racism to the big screen, having played a real-life victim of police brutality, Oscar Grant, in the 2013 film Fruitvale Station. While Just Mercy, a film Jordan also has an executive producer credit for, brings to life another specific story of a place and its people, the actor says it is relevant far beyond the borders of Alabama.
“I think there’s oppression all over the world. I think there’s a power struggle all over the world,” he says. “I believe people who know what it’s like to be in oppressed communities would be able to connect with this story, no matter their race, creed or colour … it’s a human story. It’s a question of right and wrong, so anyone who has any type of moral compass, and can discern what’s fundamentally unjust, what’s unfair, what’s just not right … there’s going to be a connection there.”
Brie Larson, who plays Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s friend and collaborator for more than 30 years, says she views films such as Just Mercy as a way to create change. “I believe in filmmaking as a form of activism, as a form of energetic exchange, and as a form of education,” she says.
“So being able to utilise my skill set as a way of highlighting and amplifying his [Stevenson’s] work feels so meaningful to me. I have been humbled by the new places that I can take activism and allyship. And Bryan has taught me so much. For me, being a participant in this film and getting to be on this journey with him has just been one of the most incredible and beneficial forms of allyship I’ve ever experienced.”
Jordan and Foxx first met when Jordan was a child, well before his career rapidly took him from the scene-stealing role of Wallace on HBO series The Wire to playing superheroes in Chronicle and Fantastic Four, as well as succeeding Sylvester Stallone as the main star of the Rocky franchise in Creed and Creed II.
Having one of his mentors acting alongside him allowed Jordan to up the intensity of the scenes they shared in his latest project.
“When you’re working with your friends, it’s sometimes easier to play tension and conflict very well because you have the comfort to push the limit and go to those places,” he says. “There’s always that chemistry and that bond there. That’s kind of what it was like for me and Jamie in those first couple of meetings between Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillian, where Bryan is having to prove himself to this man and to show him that he’s not just another lawyer, a fancy city boy that’s coming down here thinking he could change something.”
While Just Mercy is a film about the pain caused by injustice, it’s also one of optimism. Stevenson has been able to change lives and public perception, even if there is still a long way to go. Jordan says he wants audiences to walk out of the cinema feeling empowered, rather than defeated.
“There’s going to be a hope and an optimism that I think all people will be able to take away from this movie,” he says. “This film shows us that one person, anywhere, can make a difference.”
Just Mercy is in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, January 23
Updated: January 21, 2020 07:15 PM