In these fraught times, we sorely need stories with real-life heroes. “Just Mercy” is such a tale. Much more than a social justice thriller, Destin Daniel Cretton’s (“The Glass Castle”) new feature offers a galvanizing portrait of hope and its transformative power to effect change for good. This inspiring drama, starring Michael B. Jordan, is based on Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”
In 1988, fresh from Harvard Law School, Stevenson moved to Alabama to establish the Equal Justice Initiative. For more than 30 years, he and his EJI colleagues have fought on behalf of the wrongly incarcerated, including those condemned to Holman Prison’s notorious death row. “Just Mercy” focuses on the young lawyer’s service to the truth, including his first landmark case, that of Walter McMillian, a man condemned to death for a crime he didn’t commit.
German director Wim Winders once referred to movies as “emotion pictures,” a play on “motion pictures.” Cretton’s particular gift as a filmmaker is to create “empathy pictures.” His ability to not just show the emotions of his characters but to help audiences understand and share in their feelings is impressively on display in this film as Cretton and his uniformly superb cast bring Stevenson’s vision and work to riveting life. Key to the director’s method is his rapport with actors.
Last spring, Cretton took a break from editing to talk a bit about this film and his process. He explained how “being on set with the actors is typically my favorite part. … It’s so magical to watch a human tap into such a depth of empathy that they are literally inhabiting the psyche of another person. To be 3 feet away from an actor as he or she does that is really moving and so powerful to witness.”
Taking the lead are Jordan (“Black Panther,” the “Creed” films) as the determined Stevenson and Jamie Foxx (“Ray,” “Django Unchained”) in a career-best performance as Walter McMillian, a man nearly crushed by a system so egregiously rigged that “you’re guilty from the day you’re born.” The cast also features Brie Larson (“Room”) as Eva, Stevenson’s local ally and EJI colleague, Rob Morgan (“Mudbound”) and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. (“Straight Outta Compton”) as fellow death row inmates, and a memorable Tim Blake Nelson (“Watchmen”) in a wrenching performance as a life-scarred inmate whose testimony is pivotal to McMillian’s future. Additionally, there is a montage of prisoners who share their legal troubles, including four who were actual inmates Stevenson helped free.
Acquiring the movie rights before the book’s publication, producer Gil Netter shared “Just Mercy” with Cretton, believing he was the right choice to direct. The filmmaker explained what drew him to the project: “When I read Bryan’s book, it changed me. … It made me want to do something. Bryan has quickly become one of my heroes. He’s a human I respect more than anyone I’ve ever met. He leads by example, and he does it all out of kindness and love.
“Bryan has been doing work that could easily paralyze a person with pessimism and jadedness. He has chosen to somehow not trudge through this work, but really charge through it with hope and inspiration. And so much optimism, it’s crazy how optimistic he is. It’s not like he takes these issues lightly; he’s very aware of how dark things get. But when you go to Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, you don’t see stressed-out lawyers, you see people who have a lightness to them because they know what they’re working for really matters. That’s very inspiring to be around.”
Throughout production, Stevenson proved an invaluable, generous resource for the “Just Mercy” team who were determined to “stay true to Bryan’s voice and message.” In adapting the New York Times bestseller, Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham shared each draft of the script with him for accuracy and feedback. Likewise, cast and crew consulted with the lawyer-activist on every aspect from costume design (how would he dress for court?) to performance (how would he approach the bench?).
Did they get it right? At its Toronto International Film Festival premiere in September, an audience of 1,000 gave the film an eight-minute standing ovation. During the Q&A that followed, Stevenson was asked for his reaction: “Emotional. All of these amazing, talented people gave not just performances, they gave their hearts to this story. … We have been governed by fear and anger in too many places in the world and we’ve got to fight against that. We’ve got to find ways to revive hope, revive justice, revive love for human beings. We can’t do it when we just throw people away. I think it becomes easier when you get the full picture.”
It’s tempting to dismiss a woefully broken criminal justice system as a geographic anomaly or someone else’s problem. But as “Just Mercy” illustrates, the long road to justice always starts close to home, locally, in one’s community. In Colorado, where 5% of the population is black, the three men currently sitting on death row are all African American, only one with a stay of execution. Additional death penalty cases are pending. According to a 2015 University of Denver Law School study, prosecutors “were more likely to seek the death penalty against minority defendants than against white defendants.” Of the state’s 22 capital cases tried from 1999 to 2010, the research found only two were against white defendants.
In an interview with Collider, Karan Kendrick, the actress who plays Walter McMillian’s wife Minnie, observed, “As a country, I feel like our humanity is on trial.” At the premiere, sharing a personal experience that came out of making the film, she reflected, “This work changed me. … (It) forced me to realize that no one can do everything, although I feel that Bryan Stevenson is close. But everyone can do something. It forced me to ask and answer the question: What is my something?”