In Bryan Stevenson’s early years as a civil rights attorney, years before founding the Equal Justice Initiative, he found himself in the national spotlight with his 1988 defense of Walter McMillian, a black Alabama logger falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
That McMillian had been railroaded by a justice system stacked against him due to his race is indisputable. His conviction — handed down after a trial that lasted little more than a day and hinged upon the police-coerced testimony of three criminal suspects — came despite dozens of witnesses testifying he’d been at a church fish fry at the time a young white girl was murdered. McMillian was finally freed from death row in 1993, after his conviction was overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
The events of this case, still Stevenson’s best-known, are dramatized in the film “Just Mercy,” out Friday. Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson in the movie, which was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) and adapted from the Harvard-educated lawyer’s 2014 memoir of the same name. Jamie Foxx costars as McMillian, with Brie Larson playing Equal Justice Initiative cofounder Eva Ansley.
As Jordan and Stevenson explained by phone during a recent press day in Montgomery, Ala., “Just Mercy” spent years in development. Initially, the lawyer was wary of entrusting his life story to Hollywood.
“I’ve seen films based on books that I’ve read, and I haven’t felt like those films carried the integrity of the books, or the truth of them,” he explained. But the prospect of presenting a wider audience with his life’s work also felt like an opportunity too valuable to ignore.
“I thought we might be able to get this story out there and reach people who might not otherwise ever encounter the truth of what’s happening in our system,” added Stevenson, 60. “I know they will care about it if they can get close enough to see it.”
What ultimately convinced Stevenson to collaborate with Warner Bros. on “Just Mercy” was Jordan’s involvement, behind and in front of the camera. Both actor and subject signed on as executive-producers.
“Not only is he really talented and gifted, but he also cares deeply about these issues,” explained Stevenson. “It was his commitment to the issues, and the larger body of work he’d done before this, that gave me confidence we could make this happen.”
Jordan, 32, said he picks his roles carefully. This past decade, the actor has starred in Marvel blockbusters (2018′s “Black Panther”), franchise resets (2015′s “Creed” and its sequel), and independent films (2013′s “Fruitvale Station,” which dramatized the shooting death of Oscar Grant). To each role, he’s brought a balance of strength and vulnerability, subtlety and charisma; his characters are layered, often complicated, and Jordan pushes audiences to see the full scope of their humanity.
“For me, it’s a very intimate process to make a movie,” said Jordan. “It’s my heart. It’s my passion." Jordan is quick to describe portraying Stevenson, whom he considers a national hero, as “an honor,” and one of the greatest opportunities he’s had as an actor.
“What he does every day in the courtroom is a very intimate, personal thing,” explained Jordan. “When you have two people who are very intimately passionate about their individual work coming together, you get something you can’t really describe.”
Both Jordan and Stevenson say that “Just Mercy” — as well as other recent films and TV projects about mass incarceration’s racial bias, like the recently released “Clemency” and Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” and “13th” — will contribute to national conversations around prison reform.
“It’s an injustice that one in three black babies born in this country are expected to go to jail or prison,” said Stevenson, noting that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and calling this a crisis.
“Never before in history has mass incarceration shaped the lives and aspirations of so many people," he added. “I think we’re at a moment when we can no longer ignore what the politics of fear and anger has done in sending millions of people to jails or prisons."
In Hollywood, Jordan said, “more outspoken storytellers than ever” feel a responsibility to discuss mass incarceration in their work. “Some issues going on right now are at a tipping point, and I think we’re at ours.”
Stevenson said that he’s grown to believe films like “Just Mercy” can make a tangible difference. “If we lift these problems up and show people they are needed," he said, "there are people in this country prepared to respond.”
Stevenson noted that, while he was practically alone in his early days in Alabama, hundreds of lawyers now devote their careers to challenging bias in the criminal justice system, in part because of increasing attention to its issues.
“We have a chance to really turn the page and create a new chapter in how we think about punishment, justice, and equality in this country,” he added. “I do think that’s long overdue.”
With the film now opening wide, Stevenson and Jordan are optimistic that “Just Mercy” will make an impact.
“Hopefully,” Jordan said, "we’ll be able to reflect on it years later, look back, and be like: What did that do? What did that set off?”