Imagine being unjustly tried and sentenced to death for a murder you didn’t commit. Now, imagine the legal system that falsely accused and convicted you deny any wrongdoing. “Just Mercy,” the feature film adaptation of the New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, recounts how civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) tirelessly worked to retry and release inmates sitting on Alabama’s death row after erroneous trials.
Set in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the film focuses on Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a Black man who awaited the death penalty for the murder of a young White woman in Monroeville, Alabama. It is a real-life, David v. Goliath story that shows how Stevenson triumphed over every illegal and unjust obstacle the police and courts threw at him.
While it may be tempting to dismiss “Just Mercy” as another Hollywood flick that depicts the incessant injustices against Black people in the legal system (and it is that), the Warner Bros. film is also a reminder that sometimes for justice to flow, you have to beat its drum until the sound becomes impossible to ignore.
In this interview with Faithfully Magazine, Michael B. Jordan — who also produced the film — discusses his inspiration for the movie, honoring Stevenson’s work, and dealing with emotional scenes while filming.
Why did you want to tell this particular story?
I got introduced to the book and got a chance to read it and listen to Bryan’s TED Talk. I felt a huge responsibility to run towards this issue, to run towards the story, to try to do whatever I could to use my platform to get the story out to the masses. I hoped that would ultimately give Bryan a tool, something to help him do his job.
Some critics would argue that we’ve seen far too many stories about Black people fighting against injustices wielded by racist Whites. How would you answer these critics?
I want to be a part of the change, that’s what’s important to me, especially at this time in my life as a Black man in America. These issues directly affect me and my community.
This role is quite different from those portrayed in your recent blockbuster films. How did you prepare for the role emotionally and spiritually? How did you put yourself into Stevenson’s shoes?
I was really curious about being in courtrooms. I think I had a perception of what that was from growing up. That’s a place that you don’t belong in — if you’re in a court, it’s something bad. So I had to change that perception to a place of power, a place of work, and be comfortable in that space. Asking Bryan where he would stand, depending on what he’s trying to get from a witness or a judge: where do you stand, what’s your body language? There’s not a lot of ad-libbing and improv in that space. I wanted to honor Bryan’s work and what actually happened, while also leaving room for interpretation of that workspace.
Can you talk about the faith and belief Stevenson maintained against all odds? What did you learn from him?
There’s nothing better than making a positive difference in other people’s lives, and I’ve been blessed to be able to be part of a movie I believe can do that. And, the fact that he is in the supreme courts, fighting these cases, fighting this cause, day in and day out — how can we do our part? That’s what I wanted to bring to this issue and to this project. It’s about hearing Bryan’s story and wanting to be a part of the change.
Mercy is defined as “compassion, pity, or benevolence shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power.” Did your view of mercy — or specifically mercy as it relates to race and justice — change while making this film?
When Bryan talks to inmates, he makes a point of getting close. That’s extremely important — to understand and feel empathy; to understand they’re more than just a name on a piece of paper. These people have lives and families. They have things at stake and you’re responsible for that. The loss of one of them was a huge weight on Bryan, but he knew he had to continue to think about Walter, and Ray, and all the other inmates. It’s balancing emotional frustration and emotional strength.
Without spoiling anything, what do you think is the most spellbinding moment in the film?
I remember one of my final speeches in the courtroom. It was so much weight and pressure with Walter’s life on the line. The stakes were so high. Looking at these faces in the back of the courtroom and being there, it was a high-pressure situation for me and I was fumbling a couple lines and Jamie pulls me to the side. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like, “You ain’t got to be sorry for nothing. You got this. Go ahead and go do what you do.” Then, the next take was a really emotional take. It was very heavy, but that’s what we thrive on, that’s what we love. But after, I went off in the back, and that emotion carried over. Sometimes you just have to let it go. So I was crying. It was very emotional. I had to have that release. I walked back in and it was a warm reception. It was a one of the most satisfying moments as an actor for me to be able to be in that space and note what that scene meant to everybody.
What can moviegoers expect from this movie? Who is this movie for?
This is a true story of how faith and hope carry us through. It’s the same message that good preachers and good teachers are giving people every day. They’re bringing faith and hope into people’s lives, and, through my work and in my life, I’m trying to do the same, to get the story out to the masses.
In addition to Jordan and Foxx, and Brie Larson (“Captain Marvel”) main cast members of “Just Mercy” include Rob Morgan (“Mudbound”), Tim Blake Nelson (“Wormwood”), Rafe Spall (“The Big Short”), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (“Straight Outta Compton”), and Karan Kendrick (“The Hate U Give”).
“Just Mercy” releases in select theaters on Christmas Day and then in theaters nationwide January 10, 2020.