Bryan Stevenson is a busy man.
He’s a widely acclaimed public interests lawyer and prison reform advocate. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. He’s a motivational speaker, going around the country to talk about inequality in America, which led to the creation of two cultural sites – the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He’s also a professor and a bestselling author of his book Just Mercy.
Stevenson can now add executive producer to his long list of accomplishments with the new Destin Daniel Cretton film, Just Mercy, based on his bestselling-book.
Just Mercy tells the story of one of Stevenson’s first cases – Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man who was wrongfully imprisoned and sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of a woman, despite evidence proving his innocence. Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson in the film, as well as served as executive producer.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” said Stevenson told us over the phone..”I’ve joked with him [Jordan]. He was so committed to doing everything right. He was very committed to authenticity. I joked with him that ‘yes, you should do everything right. You should be as authentic as possible, but you don’t need to lose the Creed/Black Panther body when you play me.’ I won’t have any objections to that at all.”
Stevenson had nothing but praise for the actor and how the movie was overall and had one phrase that was said multiple times throughout the interview – “blown away”.
“I was really excited to see such extraordinary performances,” said Stevenson. “I was a bit apprehensive when they asked about making a movie out of the book because a lot of times Hollywood doesn’t get these issues right. It could be compromised but Michael B’s engagement gave me hope because not only is he incredibly talented but he cares deeply about these issues. That, and the director [Cretton] was really aligned on this. So, I was very hopeful but I was actually blown away by the film. I’m really proud of it. I’m excited.”
Stevenson hopes that fans watching his story will get a glimpse of what he and his organization does. The Equal Justice Initiative has provided legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial. The organization also guarantees the defense of anyone in Alabama in a death penalty case.
“I always believed that if the people see what I see that they’d feel the same way I do for the need for change [and] the need for reform,” Stevenson explained. “These performances actually let people get a glimpse of what I see and that excites me because it means we might be able to motivate this nation to do more to achieve the kind of fairness and justice that we deserve.”
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world with thousands of people who are innocent and still in jails and prisons. Stevenson hope the film brings awareness to the audience and hopefully leads to a conversation that leads to action.
“Ultimately, I see this film as a tool that could perhaps make it achievable to reform systems that are really unfair in America,” said Stevenson. “If we could do something to speak against bias and bigotry and discrimination, that gives me a lot of encouragement. That excites me. I am excited for the film to get out there.”
Although the film focuses on the McMillian case, Stevenson’s book details other cases and events that happened, including working with young children who have been prosecuted as adults. Unfortunately, due to the movie length, Stevenson’s work with imprisoned youth had to be left out of the movie.
“We actually shot a scene where Michael went to a jail to meet a young person,” said Stevenson. “It’s a very powerful scene. He meets this young boy who was placed in an adult facility where he’s been a subject and target for a lot of abuse. But, with out length being at two hours and 15 minutes, you know, we decided we couldn’t keep that in and that was disappointing to me because I just wanted people to have a sense of these other issues. But, I recognized that in this industry, you have to have a certain kind of timeline and to keep people engaged. I’m looking forward to getting that scene added to maybe some of the home entertainment packages because it was so powerful.”
The film itself is pretty powerful with so many difficult situations falling on Stevenson, including a discriminating and painfully cringe-worthy strip-search on Stevenson by a white prison guard and bomb threats towards Stevenson and those helping him. Stevenson didn’t find those scenes triggering because he wanted people to know these things happened.
“I think that because this had been my life and work, you’re never far from people who don’t want to see you do what you do,” Stevenson shared. “There is always threats. There is always menace. I think I was actually grateful to let people know that. To present that in the film. So, I was happy that those scenes were included because I do think we need to understand that to do justice work, to change the world, to advance human rights, you have to do things that are uncomfortable. You have to do things that are inconvenient. It won’t be easy. You don’t get to set the terms to always make it comfortable for you. I think people need to understand if you are going to do this type of work. I was grateful that those scenes were part of the film because I think people need to appreciate that there’s push-back. There is resistance when you do justice work in this country.”
With a film like this, I asked Stevenson about social justice outrage regarding what happens in this film. It’s hard to watch all of this happen, especially when you find out that the people involved with locking McMillian up were never brought to justice.
“For some people, it’s hard to see that,” said Stevenson. “What gives me hope and confidence is that it’s all true. No one can dispute what happened to Walter McMillian. He was released. We talked about Anthony Ray Hinton in the film. It’s all true. That’s actually local footage that you are watching when you see him walk out of that prison. The good news is that the book has been out for five years now and all of what is in the film is in the book. While people are made uncomfortable, people are willing to ask hard questions of themselves and take a closer look at their community and what they think. If the film has the same kind of impact, they will actually be encouraged.”
Just Mercy opens in select theaters on December 25th and opens everywhere on January 10th.