Content Warning: The following interview includes descriptions of capital punishment.
In 2014, lawyer, activist and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson released his memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, chronicling his early years in Alabama working to provide legal counsel to the poor and wrongly or unjustly convicted on death row. Now, with Stevenson on board as an executive producer, the novel has been adapted into a legal drama called Just Mercy starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson. The film follows a black man named Walter McMillian, who is wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row for murdering an 18-year-old white woman. To bring Just Mercy's true story to the big screen, Stevenson has entrusted director Destin Daniel Cretton who also co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham. Cretton took his task extremely seriously.
“Every scene of this movie [Stevenson] was very involved in making sure that it accurately portrayed not only the character but also the situation," he tells Refinery29.
Stevenson’s book details multiple cases and clients he works with, but McMillian’s story is carried throughout the entire memoir which is why Cretton decided to keep it at the centre of the movie Just Mercy. “I felt like the trajectory of that story really paints a clear picture as to how this justice system that we have in our country is really working for the rich and powerful and not really working for the poor,” Cretton explained. “It really highlights the different aspects of how difficult it is for this system to admit that [it has done] something wrong even when all the evidence is pointing towards that.”
While Walter’s story certainly conveys this central message of the film, there are supporting characters, particularly death row inmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), that further stress the importance of Stevenson’s work. Herbert, unlike Walter, actually committed his crime and voices his guilt and regret. The movie addresses Herbert’s PTSD as a result of his service in the Vietnam War, explaining how it drove him to create a bomb and kill a woman. Cretton said Herbert’s presence in the film speaks to the discussion of the death penalty and whether or not people like Herbert, suffering from a disease, should be put to death.
The scenes with Herbert are some of the heaviest and emotional moments in Just Mercy. Unlike the other scenes (which were filmed in Alabama and Georgia), all the death row scenes, including footage of the cells and Herbert’s execution, were shot on a stage. Cretton said Sharon Seymor, the production design, researched the Holman Prison extensively to almost mirror death row.
“There’s a lot of documentation that allowed us to replicate really to the finest detail both the dimensions of each one of those cells — everything that is in those cells up to like the grate that is in front of the cells. Those are all taken from actual footage that we have of Holman Prison during the time that Walter McMillian was there.” According to Cretton, the execution chamber, the height of the chair, and the dimensions of the cells were recreated to the exact foot.
“It was a sobering day for sure,” Cretton said, noting that a former head of execution for 20 years, who now advocates against the death penalty, was on set. He took them step by step through the execution process, including showing the actors that play the guards how to strap someone down into the electric chair.
Cretton says Morgan didn't step foot on set until they were shooting, "so the first time he stepped in there he was escorted down the hall by the guards. The first time he saw the electric chair was tape one when we were rolling. We shot the whole thing with two cameras so we could just kind of go through the entire process all in one swoop.”
One of the guards who leads Herbert, played by Hayes Mercure, appears to be slightly hesitant during the scene. The guard is first introduced to the audience when he is belittling Stevenson (Jordan) by strip searching him before he meets his client. The guard, who is modelled after a prison guard in Stevenson’s book, “represents one of those very skewed racist world views.”
“Taking a human life regardless of what you think you believe puts it in a very different context," says Cretton. "That was something that we wanted to show which was in line with Bryan’s experience.” It is a momentary glimpse at the character's humanity without redeeming him or making him a saviour.
In fact, Cretton worked hard to keep any elements of white saviour complex from infiltrating his film. As such, Just Mercy name checks To Kill A Mockingbird, which is also set in Monroeville, Alabama, a couple of times. “That was one of the big ironies of this case. Bryan Stevenson going into this place that so proudly championed the legacy of this book and kind of missed one the point of the book, but also Bryan in Just Mercy reminds everybody that Atticus Finch’s client ends up dying, being lynched,” says Cretton.
But the Harper Lee’s work isn’t just referenced for irony. “It’s a lens through the white characters in the South which is one point of view,” Cretton said about the fictional novel. “But in this case, in this story, we wanted to tell this story through the lens of the African-American experience which is specifically what Bryan Stevenson wanted to do.”