Social justice activist and attorney Bryan Stevenson has done a lot in his 59 years on this earth.
He’s argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He created a museum on the history of lynching, slavery and racial discrimination and a memorial to peace and justice. He’s authored a best-selling memoir and been featured in a TED Talk on mass incarceration that went viral. He’s received a MacArthur “genius” grant. But until last September, on a rain-streaked afternoon at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, Stevenson had never walked the red carpet at a movie premiere.
It was, Stevenson admits, a “surreal experience,” one made even more unusual because the film in question, “Just Mercy,” recounts his fight to free Walter McMillian, a wrongfully convicted man whose story serves as a fiercely urgent reminder of the inequities in our criminal justice system. McMillian is portrayed by Jamie Foxx and Stevenson is played by Michael B. Jordan, the “Black Panther” star who has used his considerable leverage to bring the story to the screen.
“Michael has been a great conversation partner throughout this whole experience,” says Stevenson. “I can talk to him a little bit about how to move through a courtroom, and he can definitely show me how to move on a red carpet.” Jordan isn’t having it. “Sometimes I think, ‘What can I tell this guy?’” he says. “Because I look up to him.”
Despite being new to the world of moviemaking, Stevenson arguably outshone the A-list stars in attendance at last month’s gala screening. Premieres tend to be celebratory affairs, filled with shout-outs to production teams and studios executives. Yet it was Stevenson who spoke to the seriousness of what was about to unspool on screen, a searing look at the lives of dispossessed individuals whose reality could not be further removed from that of the well-heeled festival-goers. But it was a world that Stevenson knew intimately, having spent 35 years with people on death row — people who, he noted have often been told their lives have no value and who are ignored or shunted aside by society.
Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Stevenson sounded a hopeful note. “We can change things,” he said as the packed auditorium erupted in applause. “We can expect more. We can do more. … I hope together we can actually create a more just world.”
It was a rousing, goose-bump-inducing call to arms, one fueled by a galvanizing belief in the capacity of individuals to effect change, but also the kind of speech that few orators could pull off without seeming hectoring or maudlin. “Everybody should know him,” says Foxx. “It reminds me of when Barack Obama came along. You went, ‘Everybody should know him.’”
It demonstrates that Stevenson is the best ambassador for a movie about a difficult subject — a film that faces challenging commercial headwinds when it opens it opens in limited release on Dec. 25. before expanding in January. In an age of high-flying superhero adventures, “Just Mercy” is an earthbound story about real people trying to do right. In short, it’s the kind of movie they just don’t make much these days.
“This was an important story, a moving story and one that we felt could draw a mainstream audience,” says Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Picture Group, the studio behind the roughly $25 million production. “The filmmakers had a plan to make it at a responsible price, so there was managed risk, and you know sometimes you’ve just got to take a shot on something you believe in.”
Warner Bros. is betting that “Just Mercy” will become a major awards season player, with Jordan and Foxx vying in the lead and supporting actor categories and the film duking it out with front-runners like “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” in the best picture battle. Even if it falls short of those ambitions and becomes an Oscars also-ran, “Just Mercy” will have made history. It’s the first major studio film to adopt the idea of an inclusion rider, a contractual provision that mandates women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented groups be considered for key on-screen and behind-the-scenes jobs. Jordan got the idea to include the mandate in his contracts after watching Frances McDormand name-check the initiative while accepting her Oscar in 2018 for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
“We’re always coming from a place of not having power,” says Jordan. “I was like, man, I want my environment to be a reflection of the world I’m living in. We started figuring out a way to do this, so now if you want to do this project with me, you’ve got to accept these terms.”
True to form, the overarching production diversity policy didn’t just stop with the production of “Just Mercy.” Jordan, whose production shingle Outlier Society has a first-look deal with Warner Bros., helped convince the studio’s parent company, WarnerMedia, to embrace the rider across all of its divisions. In the case of “Just Mercy,” the production team was able to hire women or people of color to head such major departments as casting, costume design, production design, hair, makeup and stunts. It also empowered the various department chiefs to find people from underrepresented groups to staff other pivotal roles. Destin Daniel Cretton, the film’s director, says that many of the people who got to oversee departments had worked in the business for decades but had never been given a chance to run their own shop. By embracing the inclusion rider, Cretton argues, the production forced staffers to broaden job searches beyond networks of people they’d worked with in the past.
“They did a kickass job,” says Cretton. “That’s the thing. These aren’t favors that we’re giving out. This is us getting to a point where we’re finally giving people what they deserve.”
Those who worked on “Just Mercy” maintain that having a more diverse cast and crew fostered an important creative environment, one that was crucial to maintain as they told a story about racial injustice.
“What I remember most is sitting as a group — cast, filmmakers, crew — and having these incredibly open, vulnerable conversations when the cameras weren’t rolling,” says Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, who plays one of Stevenson’s colleagues, Eva Ansley. “Conversations that ultimately shaped the course of the filmmaking process in a powerful way. It wouldn’t have been possible in a less inclusive environment.”
“Just Mercy” doesn’t just grapple with knotty moral and legal issues. It holds an important place in an ongoing fight to make the entertainment industry a more open and diverse business. It’s a movie that gives two leading black actors roles that are equal to their formidable talent, a production directed by a person of color and a film that deals frankly with issues of racial injustice. It is, in short, a sign of the new direction being charted in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and the social activism that sprang up with a rising awareness that underrepresented groups were being left out of the frame. In 2018, a record number of movies featured women or people of color as leads or co-leads. Of course, the overwhelming majority of films are still centered on stories of white men, but Jordan and Foxx believe that momentum is on their side. They point to the success of films such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” as evidence that Hollywood is getting the message: Diversity can be good for business too.
“Our industry is very reactive,” says Jordan. “Take ‘Black Panther.’ Before it came out, it was black films don’t travel. They don’t sell internationally. Nobody will come and see an all-black cast. Marvel said, ‘All right, we’re going to put this up.’ Now watch how many black sci-fi projects are coming out. Everybody sees they’re profitable, and they’re all saying, ‘I want some of that too.’”
Shortly after taking the stage at Toronto, Stevenson, Jordan and Foxx sit down with Variety to talk about their hopes for the film. They’re clearly pumped by the response from the opening-night crowd, which gave the movie a spirited standing ovation.
Stevenson believes that “Just Mercy” can shine an important light on the issues that he’s devoted his career to combating, but he admits that he was reluctant to become the public face of a larger movement. He began to raise his profile after growing alarmed by the rightward tilt in the country’s court system. He was worried that if Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that banned racial segregation in public schools, were decided today, the outcome would be markedly different.
“I became persuaded that we probably couldn’t win it,” says Stevenson. “I was persuaded that our court today would not be willing to do something that disruptive on behalf of disenfranchised and marginalized people. It was a scary thought. That’s when I realized we have to get outside the courtroom to create a different environment in which these legal decisions are being made.”
So Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office in Alabama, began to seek the spotlight. First he appeared at the Ted2012 conference in Long Beach, Calif., where he enthralled audiences with a lecture that outlined the ways in which the criminal justice system is stacked against people of color. He went a step further to demonstrate the ways this contributes to larger divisions in society: He not only highlighted statistics, such as the fact that black defendants are 11 times more likely to get the death penalty than white ones; he also linked institutional racism to the legacy of slavery and the failure of reconstruction. His speech drew more than 5.8 million views.
Capitalizing on the momentum, Stevenson went on to write “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” a 2014 memoir that expanded on the Ted Talk by drilling into one of the lawyer’s formative early cases, his 1988 defense of Walter McMillian, a 47-year-old African American pulpwood worker who was falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to death. McMillian’s railroading was so egregious it almost defies belief. He was prosecuted for the killing of a white teenager despite that multiple witnesses testified he was at a church fish fry at the time of the murder. In the manuscript stage, Stevenson’s book found its way to Gil Netter, the producer of “The Blind Side,” who thought it had big-screen potential.
“I only make movies that put good in the world,” says Netter. “I always feel that if a story moves me, hopefully it will move everybody else.”
Netter enlisted Cretton, a director best known for making “Short Term 12,” a drama about a group home for troubled teens. In turn, Cretton reached out to Jordan through Ryan Coogler, the “Black Panther” and “Fruitvale Station” filmmaker who was a friend from their days working the indie festival circuit.
“I called Ryan and said I thought this project would be perfect for Michael B., and 30 seconds later he’s patched him in and we’re on a three-way call,” recalls Cretton. “I believe Michael B. was in Vegas at the time because there was a lot of thumping music in the background.”
Jordan’s commitment helped the film secure backing, but the showcase role belongs to Foxx, who digs deep as McMillian, a man who knows all too well that in Alabama, justice is anything but color blind. With a bushy mustache in initial scenes and a thick Southern accent, Foxx so transforms himself that Stevenson says he almost felt as if McMillian, who died in 2013, was reenacting his life on screen. To play the role, Foxx drew on his experiences growing up in Texas. “It allowed me to understand that when they’re saying ‘n—–,’ it’s sort of like very matter of fact,” says Foxx. “It’s just another Tuesday. You have to have that sensibility to understand who this character is.”
There’s a scene early in “Just Mercy” in which McMillian is pulled over by a racist sheriff who is eager to find a patsy for the murder. McMillian has landed on the policeman’s radar for having an affair with a white woman, an unforgivable sin in his eyes. Foxx expertly shows his character’s dawning realization that he is powerless to mount any kind of defense in the face of such deeply ingrained prejudice.
“Jamie knows that you have to live in two worlds when you live in the South,” says Stevenson. “You have to have a way of managing conflict with people who distrust you and hate you and presume you’re dangerous and guilty, and still be open with your family and the people you care about.”
For Jordan, “Just Mercy” represented a chance to work alongside Foxx, a longtime friend and mentor. The “Ray” star, recognizing Jordan as an actor on the rise, reached out to him when he moved out to Los Angeles as a teenager, and they bonded over basketball games, with Foxx offering his take on the best way to navigate the entertainment business.
“Jamie was one of those people who, in my head, I was always like, ‘I can’t wait to repay him,’” says Jordan. “My parents would hear stories about Hollywood, and there were a lot of reservations on their part about letting me go out there. But what met me on the other side in Los Angeles was this community of people like Jamie that genuinely cared about me. It made all the difference in the world. Mistakes that I could easily have made, they made sure I didn’t or scared me away from it.”
“Just Mercy” has been billed as a courtroom drama, but Cretton didn’t look to “A Few Good Men” or “… And Justice for All” when it came to shaping the movie. He found inspiration in 2015 best picture Oscar winner “Spotlight,” particularly the way that the true-life story about a crusading team of newspaper reporters who expose the systemic cover-up of child abuse by the Catholic Church in Boston dialed down the dramatics.
“It’s the classic thing of not wanting a movie telling you how to feel,” says Cretton. “With this movie, the scenarios and the emotions are so high that if we tried to push it any further with a big swelling string section or even a really cool slo-mo shot, it started to feel fake.”
It may be admirably restrained, but the film, like any great social drama, dares to wade into a divisive political issue. It asks tough questions about not only the morality of the death penalty but also its efficacy. “Just Mercy” closes with a sobering statistic. For every nine people executed in this country, one innocent person has been exonerated. As Stevenson notes of that jaw-dropping rate of error, if one of every nine planes crashed, no one would fly.
“For me, the threshold question is not whether people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed,” says Stevenson. “It’s do we deserve to kill? Have we created a system with the kind of fairness and reliability and justice that we can engage in a punishment that has to be perfect? Because if we kill someone who didn’t do something, we don’t have the ability to fix that.”
The hope is that “Just Mercy” will do more than entertain. It will inspire audience members to take action. Stevenson says he is bracing for a major uptick in requests for aid. Normally, the Equal Justice Initiative gets 100 emails a week looking for legal help. After his book was published and the Ted Talk got attention, the number jumped to 500 weekly requests, and he fully expects it to double after the film debuts. “What I have to figure out is how we’re going to meet the need,” he says. “There are so many mothers and siblings and spouses whose loved ones didn’t get the help they needed.”
Stevenson is prepared to surrender more of his anonymity if it means that more people will engage with the cause of criminal justice reform. He notes that people of color comprise a disproportionate share of the prison population and face stricter sentencing than white offenders. Currently, one in three black boys and one in six Latino boys are projected to go to jail or prison in their lifetimes. If the movie is a success, Stevenson believes it could encourage people to seek out ways they can help to level the playing field.
“Look at the canon of amazing films that have been made about the Holocaust,” he says. “That means that nobody on the planet is totally unaware of what happened during that time period. I think we all have a knowledge of that. That’s not true for lynching. That’s not true for slavery. That’s not true for segregation. And it’s certainly not true for mass incarceration.”
Stevenson and Jordan have charted very different paths as they have risen to the top of their respective fields, but both men say they have a lot in common.
“What I really learned about Bryan is he’s a strategist,” says Jordan. “He loves to think ahead. I think of myself the same way. You might not understand the first couple of plays, but you look down the field, and eight moves later the game is over.”
In their own lives — Stevenson through his legal work, Jordan with his embrace of the inclusion rider — both men are striving to make their worlds fairer and more equitable. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but sometimes it needs a push in the right direction.