It’s about this lawyer who has a real love for the peo­ple he’s fight­ing for.

DESTIN DANIEL CRETTON ‘JUST MERCY’

Los Angeles Times - - WHAT'S INSIDE - BY HUGH HART

In all the movies I’ve made so far, there’s been no spe­cial ef­fects or ac­tion to lean on, so the per­for­mances are al­ways the main thing,” says di­rec­tor Destin Daniel Cretton. “And of course, that all comes down to cast­ing.” Cretton knows a thing or two about the power of a well-cast ensem­ble. In 2013, he picked then-un­knowns Brie Lar­son and Rami Malek for his de­but fea­ture, “Short Term 12,” ef­fec­tively launch­ing their Os­car­win­ning ca­reers. Now Cretton has as­sem­bled another pow­er­house troupe to dra­ma­tize the real-life death row res­cue mis­sion de­picted in the Christ­mas re­lease “Just Mercy.”

Set in 1992 Alabama, the court­room drama stars Michael B. Jor­dan as lawyer Bryan Steven­son, with Jamie Foxx as his wrongly con­victed client Wal­ter “Johnny D.” McMil­lian, Lar­son as Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive co-founder Eva Ans­ley and Tim Blake Nel­son in the role of ec­cen­tric felon Ralph Myers.

“The char­ac­ters just seemed very real to me,” says Cretton, who be­came cap­ti­vated with the “Just Mercy” case shortly af­ter pro­ducer Gil Net­ter handed him Steven­son’s mem­oir of the same name. “I sat in a cof­fee shop in Hol­ly­wood, started read­ing Bryan’s book and couldn’t put it down,” Cretton re­calls, speak­ing from a West Hol­ly­wood ho­tel. “The hu­man­ity of this story moved me to tears.”

Cretton and co-writer An­drew Lan­ham pic­tured Jor­dan in the lead role even be­fore they started on the script. Why Jor­dan? “With ev­ery one of Michael B.’s char­ac­ters go­ing back to ‘Fruit­vale,’ you re­ally feel his heart,” Cretton says. “Ev­ery­body loves his Kill­mon­ger in ‘Black Pan­ther,’ even though he’s the vil­lain, be­cause you can still feel his heart, and that’s what ‘Just Mercy’ is all about. It’s about this lawyer who has a real love for the peo­ple he’s fight­ing for.”

Jor­dan and Cretton met with Steven­son at his home in Mont­gomery, Ala., where the civil rights at­tor­ney rec­om­mended a re­strained per­for­mance no mat­ter how in­fu­ri­at­ing the cir­cum­stances.

“Bryan said it would be strate­gi­cally stupid to tell off the sher­iff and the D.A. or to call out some­body in the court­room,” Cretton re­calls. “He told us, ‘You will never yell at a judge or white lawyer in the South and end up get­ting what you want.’ So Michael B. found these mo­ments in the film where we can see he clearly wants to ex­plode and let those emo­tions out, but he strug­gles to keep it in.”

Cretton en­listed Os­car win­ner Foxx to play “Johnny D.” “Grow­ing up in Texas,” the di­rec­tor notes, “Jamie had ex­pe­ri­ences that gave him a per­sonal con­nec­tion. I don’t want to say it was easy, but I think it was nat­u­ral for Jamie to tap into that char­ac­ter.”

Nel­son took on the role of “Just Mercy” wild card Myers, the twitchy in­mate pres­sured by au­thor­i­ties into giv­ing false tes­ti­mony against Johnny D. “Ralph has a sort of bizarre charisma, and he could have eas­ily be­come a car­i­ca­ture, but Tim wanted to find the hu­man be­hind the shtick,” says Cretton, not­ing that, as a child, Myers had been dis­fig­ured in a fire.

“Tim worked re­ally hard on get­ting the de­formed lip in place, which he did com­pletely on his own through­out the movie. Tim un­der­stood how his char­ac­ter high­lights a com­mon oc­cur­rence, where peo­ple in power take poor white peo­ple and pit them against poor black peo­ple. The truth is, they’re all being ex­ploited.”

Ac­tor Rob Mor­gan, por­tray­ing Johnny D.’s death row com­pa­triot Her­bert Richard­son, an­chors one of the movie’s most wrench­ing se­quences. Cen­tered on a replica of Hol­man Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity’s so-called Yel­low Mama elec­tric chair, the scene was staged with help from a for­mer ex­e­cu­tioner.

“He walked us through the specifics of the ex­e­cu­tion process step by step, and we re­hearsed the ac­tors play­ing the guards so they had their rou­tine down,” Cretton ex­plains. “But we pur­posely waited to roll cam­era un­til the first time Rob Mor­gan sees the ex­e­cu­tion cham­ber, and the first time he sits in the chair, and the first time he gets the straps put on him. What you see on the screen is our ac­tor ex­pe­ri­enc­ing all of that for the first time.”

Al­though the “Just Mercy” story ends in 1993, Steven­son and the Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive con­tinue to com­bat sys­temic racism.

“It’s a good time for a movie like this to be com­ing out,” Cretton says. “Bryan does not beat peo­ple by ar­gu­ing them into sub­mis­sion. He’s kind of an em­pa­thy ge­nius who dis­arms the walls we put up by re­mind­ing us that we all want to live in a world that is fair and just.”

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

Gary Coron­ado Los An­ge­les Times

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