Death-row saga ‘Just Mercy’ seeks justice
The death row lawyer whose work inspired the star-studded legal drama “Just Mercy” says Hollywood is not known for tackling challenging material, and that initially gave him pause when he was approached to share his story on the big screen.
But Alabama-based Bryan Stevenson, who has dedicated his life to defending the wrongfully convicted, says he wants the issues that face his clients to reach “a bigger and broader audience,” noting there is still “a lot of work to do.”
“We still have a very nonresponsive, unfair system that is putting innocent people in jails and prisons,” Stevenson said during a roundtable interview when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
“We still have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, we still have too few people of colour in decision-making roles, we still have an animus toward the poor, we still look the other way when people are suffering.”
The tragedy of wrongful convictions exist in Canada, too, say the film’s stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson in several short videos that are part of a new fundraising campaign for the non-profit advocacy group Innocence Canada, formerly known as the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.
In separate online videos, the celebrities highlight shocking instances of injustice, with Jordan detailing the case of Halifax’s Glen Assoun, exonerated in March 2019 after wrongly spending 17 years in prison for the 1995 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Brenda Way:
“Justice does not come easy, you have to fight for it,” says the “Creed” star.
“We can show Canada and the world that true justice does not come without mercy,” Foxx adds in his video.
Jordan leads the cast as the young, idealistic lawyer who goes to Alabama after graduating from Harvard Law School in the 1980s to fight for the disenfranchised, and soon finds himself in over his head with the racially charged case of a black man framed for killing a young white woman.
Meanwhile, Foxx transforms himself into the worn-down inmate Walter McMillian, who was convicted and sentenced to death following a brief trial in which the jury ignored several black witnesses who testified McMillian was at a church fish fry when the crime occurred. Larson plays local advocate Eva Ansley, who helps Bryan set up his non-profit, the Equal Justice Initiative.
“Just Mercy” director and cowriter Destin Daniel Cretton says he hopes the movie, based on Stevenson’s memoir (it opened Friday), will touch audiences as deeply as the material affected him.
“I didn’t grow up as an advocate or chasing these issues, but reading Bryan’s book, it’s so accessible, it’s so relatable,” said Cretton, whose upcoming projects include Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
“To be able to see these characters who are prisoners on death row come alive (it) makes me see them as: That could be my friend, that could be my brother, they laugh at the same things I laugh at, they care about the same things I care about. It‘s such a simple revelation but a really powerful one and I think it’s something that anybody can have.”
Much has changed since the events of the film — Stevenson says his staff has grown to 150 people and he’s proud to say his Montgomery-based office has gotten 140 people off death row after being wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.
The emotional tale delves into provocative societal issues including racial and economic inequity, mass incarceration and basic human rights. But Cretton was wary of letting the performances become overwrought.
“As storytellers we love to push it as far as we can and try to create a scene that’ll give Michael B. a lot of big things to do,” he says.
“Working closely with Bryan there was a constant reminder that this character isn’t operating for himself.
He’s operating on behalf of 1,500 clients that he’s working for at any given time and his emotional reaction to a judge actually has a trickle effect that can negatively affect a lot of people that he is working for and so that restraint is something that Bryan helped us to understand,” Cretton explains.
“I find (it’s) a really moving, pretty magical performance because all of his emotions are trapped inside and you see it come out in his eyes but it’s a very subtle thing on the surface.”
Stevenson says he wanted the adaptation to focus on the most important element of his work: “the people who are often exploited and mistreated and abused and marginalized in our justice system.”
“So much of the work I do, there are 100 ways to do it wrong and only a few ways to do it right but when I met Destin my confidence grew because he’s just kind and compassionate and caring and he was so sincere and earnest and he said, ‘I don’t want to do this if we can’t do it right.’”
Stevenson notes that’s a guiding principle in his decades-long fight for justice.