NEW YORK CITY: “We still have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” American lawyer Bryan Stevenson tells ICON, his voice gentle and his eyes kind. “And as long as that’s true, there’s an effort that has to be made. There’s a call that has to be answered.”
Stevenson’s revelatory and thought-provoking memoir, Just Mercy, is a read that alters one’s empathy metre and forever sits deep within the psyche. Clear-sighted and compassionate, Stevenson has battled against the echoes of the Jim Crow segregation era and its effects on the American criminal justice system his entire career as a defendant to the wrongfully condemned. Now, the Delaware native and Harvard graduate’s most formative case has been turned into a moving, must-see movie.
JUST MERCY IS IN AUSTRALIAN CINEMAS ON JANUARY 23.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and from a script written with Andrew Lanham, the timely legal drama Just Mercy follows a young Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) as he arrives in Alabama in the late 1980s to lend his dissenting voice to the dispossessed inmates of death row. Here he meets a vanquished Walter McMillian, an Alabama pulpwood worker (played by Jamie Foxx) who was wrongfully convicted of murdering an 18-year-old girl and sentenced to death. McMillian initially didn’t want anything to do with the seemingly naïve lawyer, a moment that took place inside Holman State Prison in Atmore – and one Stevenson remembers well.
“It’s hard to stay hopeful in such a desperate situation. It just becomes easier to just kind of exist in that dark space,” he says. “I think Walter, having lived a life in the segregated South – having been marginalised his entire life – it was initially hard to recover that [hope]. I remember the moment [McMillian started to shift his perspective of Stevenson] and it was after I met his family. When you take an innocent person and you put them on death row, you’re not just convicting and condemning that person, you convict and condemn the entire family. They were so excited at the possibility that someone might fight.
“I think between their excitement and my persistence, he began to have this hope,” he continued, smiling. “And he was a remarkably committed man.”
“We became not just friends but brothers.”
Australian audiences will have a hard time swallowing how guilt or innocence plays second fiddle to capital punishment in some American states. Despite so much evidence proving McMillian’s innocence – and the fact the main testimony against him came from a dubious witness named Ralph Myers (played convincingly by Tim Blake Nelson) – the system is so stacked against black men of a particular socioeconomic background, McMillian didn’t stand much chance. With the help of local advocate Eva Ansley (played by Brie Larson), Stevenson fights a convoluted legal labyrinth to eventually see McMillian released.
“It’s very affirming. It’s very gratifying,” says Stevenson recounting the feeling of quite literally saving a man’s life. “It’s just challenging at the same time because I don’t have the ability to give back to people what they’ve lost. I can’t give Walter McMillian six years back. I can’t give [fellow death row inmate] Anthony Ray Hinton who gets released after 30 years that time back. But what I can do is give them my ultimate effort and my best to make sure they are not wrongfully executed. What frustrates me is there’s still so many innocent people in our jails and prisons who need help and who need legal advocacy.”
The famous court scene is which Stevenson desperately tries to convince a jury of McMillian’s innocence weighed heavy on Jordan who also was a producer on the film. “When you read a script on certain movies, there are certain scenes that you circle, like, ‘I look forward to this one’,” says the 32-year-old actor. “The [court scene] was the one that I really needed to get right and do a good job because I knew it meant so much to the movie and was a really important part of the film.”
Video Edit: Kimberlee Kessler. Jessica wears Scanlan Theodore
“The first couple of times, I fumbled a couple of lines and I wasn’t really nailing it,” Jordan continues. “And…”
“And I can tell you what happened,” interjects Foxx, smiling. “When he did fumble a couple of lines, he apologised to everybody. I spoke with him and I said, ‘You don’t have to apologise to anybody. You’ve put this together in front of and behind the camera and this is big,” recalls Foxx. “I said, ‘Take as much time as you want.’ He steps off to the side, he comes back and he lays it out. And it was like a football game and someone scored the winning touchdown. He hit the wooden basket and everyone stood to their feet. He walks out and you could tell that he had caught fire emotionally.”
“I texted him and I said, ‘Listen, I know where you are emotionally but just know that the ladies in the fourth row are weeping.’”
Calling this the most important film he’s ever been a part of, Foxx’s performance is chilling particularly in the aforementioned scene where Stevenson and McMillian meet for the first time. Growing up in the Southern city of Terrell in Texas, Foxx has publicly talked about the racial intolerances he experienced as a kid and adolescent. (When Barack Obama was elected President, the city’s newspaper refused to publish the historical win on the front cover if this by any measure gives you an indication of the level of racism in the town.)
Stranger Things actor Rob Morgan who plays death row inmate Herbert Richardson in the film also said his past helped inform the mindset of his character. “Taking my own experiences as a black man in America and being oppressed by the system… I was extremely honoured to give Herbert a voice for all the other voiceless people who have had to endure this situation,” he told ICON. (Morgan’s Herbert had me in uncontrollable tears in the cinema.)
Like his book, Stevenson’s presence has stayed with the cast. Jordan says the lessons he learnt from Stevenson are things he will take with him into the new decade. “At the end of the year, everybody wants to set some new goals. Everybody wants to be like, ‘New year, new me’ and a month later we’re back in the same routine,” Jordan says as Foxx chuckles beside him.
“For me, it’s just about being very hopeful and setting the bar really high. Being ambitious and not being afraid to fail and take some big swings. I think Bryan takes the biggest swings ever. He’s constantly fighting. Every day is life or death for somebody. It’s truly inspiring to know that somebody’s out there playing with those stakes every day and refuses to lose.”
“[Stevenson] wants to outwork people, he wants to work hard and know everything he needs to know in order to get this man out of this circumstance,” Jordan continues. “And if I apply that to my life – which is nothing compared to what he’s doing – I feel like I could be in an OK place.”
Stevenson smiles – humbly so – as I repeat Jordan’s compliments. “[Jordan] said he wanted to do everything in the most authentic way possible and I said ‘Please do that, but the one place where you don’t have to be authentic is you don’t have to get rid of that Black Panther body’,” Stevenson says laughing. “‘You can play me just as you are.’”
JUST MERCY IS IN AUSTRALIAN CINEMAS ON JANUARY 23.
Video edit by Kimberlee Kessler.