Hollywood cranks out plenty of autobiographical films each year and they are all promoted as being “based on a true story.” But some aren’t always factual or supported by the real-life people who inspired the characters (see: The real Ramona and Hustlers). Well, that certainly isn’t the case for legal drama Just Mercy which is based off the memoir of the same name by lawyer, activist, and founder of Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson. Not only did Stevenson provide the source material for the screenplay, but he also served as executive producer to guarantee the accuracy of each scene.
Just Mercy chronicles the beginning stages of Stevenson’s career in 1989 when the EJI was formed. That same year, he took on the case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), a Black man who was wrongly convicted of murdering and 18-year-old white woman and placed on death row a year before he even had a trial. But Stevenson’s efforts to reform our criminal justice system extend far beyond his first case. He still fights for the legal representation of the poor and those placed on death row. Oh, and he does all this while also working as a Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law because this man is constantly fighting to improve our legal system.
According to the EJI’s website, Stevenson and his staff, which includes his Director of Operations Eva Ansley (played by Brie Larson in the movie), have worked to win releases, reverals, and relief for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. Additionally, they have won relief for hundreds of those who have been wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. In 2018, he spearheaded the creation of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial, two sites that educate visitors on lynching, slavery, and other racial issues. Just this year, he took a case to the Supreme Court about protecting condemned prisoners who have been diagnosed with dementia and won.
Stevenson is currently on a Just Mercy press tour with Michael B. Jordan who portrays him and also doubles as an executive producer. Somehow, he found time to film the HBO documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality which was released earlier this year. The film depicts the suffering Stevenson’s clients face while also touching on why he decided to defend the poor and imprisoned in Alabama. The documentary is available to stream on HBO Now.
In an interview with Essence, Stevenson spoke about some of the topics addressed in the documentary, particularly why he became a lawyer. He explained that he grew up in a community where Black and white people went to separate schools. “It took the rule of law and the ability to go into a courtroom and make things change,” Stevenson said. “And that’s what motivated me. I always want to use that power to help people who are disfavored and disadvantaged, to help people like the people I grew up with.” The African American community knows the criminal justice system is “a threat,” but we must keep fighting reform it, he said.
Just Mercy director Destin Daniel Cretton referred to Stevenson as a “genius of empathy” in an interview with Refinery29 and said that reflects in “the core of his work.” Continuing to compliment Stevenson, Cretton added, “He is able to look at a human being that most of society has discarded or pushed into the background. He looks much deeper than that and tries to understand a person and all of their layers and all of their complexities.” Cretton also sees this trait in Jordan, who he said was the first person he thought of to play the lawyer.
“To me, that deep empathy and care is something that I’ve seen in all of Michael B. Jordan’s performances,” Cretton said, listing Jordan’s roles in Fruitvale Station and Black Panther. “You can tell that he really cares about that character that he’s playing so much that you see the hurt and the pain behind everything that those characters do. That to me is an example of an actor who really cares.” Cretton also mentioned that Jordan, like Stevenson, uses his platform to help other people.
Stevenson continues his work at the EJI, and the release of Just Mercy will hopefully share his efforts with a global audience and inspire them to join his efforts.