For Michael B. Jordan, Just Mercy is a way to raise awareness and open minds about inequities in the nation’s criminal justice system.
The upcoming film follows the true story of Walter McMillian, an African-American man sentenced to death in Alabama for murder, even though the evidence proves his innocence.
The drama is based on the bestselling memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated civil rights attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted.
Jordan plays Stevenson opposite Jamie Foxx as McMillian. The Creed actor also serves as producer and helped cast the upcoming Warner Bros. release, through his Outlier Society production company. Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Rob Morgan, Rafe Spall and Tim Blake Nelson round out the main cast.
Earlier this month, Warner Bros. and CNN hosted a “clips and conversation” event on the drama at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) convention in Miami. Afterwards, I sat down with Jordan and Stevenson for more details on the film. Read their interview below.
Bryan, why did you start the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama?
Bryan Stevenson: In Alabama, there were dozens of people on death row with no lawyers, and I knew that I had to intervene. That’s why we started the project. I went down and took the first five cases, and Walter was just one of those five. I heard his story, and this is depicted in the film, I went back and read the file. That’s when I realized, “Oh, my God, this man is innocent. There’s no way he committed this crime.” It just kind of evolved from there.
Michael, you play Bryan in the film. But a movie about the criminal justice system can be a tough sell, getting people to leave home and buy tickets.
Michael B. Jordan: That wasn’t even something I thought about, not once in the decision making. I wanted to make this film for the man to my left arm [Stevenson], I got a chance to educate myself on him and what he was about… I wanted to stand on the right side of history. I want to do my part. I wanted to give him a bigger platform, somehow make a tool that could be beneficial for him to help him do his job. The power of movies, the power of storytelling makes people look at someone, look at a group of people that they might not have empathy for, they might not have compassion for, they might not know, and change their mind, change the way they think, change the way they feel. With this project, I feel like we want to change some hearts and change some minds.
The film has an amazing cast. Michael, were you at all involved in getting Jamie on board?
Michael B. Jordan: I called him and I thought he was perfect. It’s really hard to make movies in general, just everything has to line up perfectly, everybody’s schedule has to work out. And, we were able to get Jamie. I wanted to remind people of who Jamie Foxx was, I think people forgot over the years, that this is the man who played Ray [Charles], and won that Academy Award [for Ray], and this was the type of material that was going to show people that.
What about Brie Larson, did you use that Marvel connection?
Michael B. Jordan: “No. I didn’t make that Marvel call. (laughter) She worked with our director, Destin Daniel Cretton, on Short Term 12, which was her first indie project that really put her on the map.
There’s a lot of diversity in the cast, but what about the crew? Is that something you were concerned with or pushed for?
Michael B. Jordan: Yes. This is the first project under my inclusion rider [with Warner Bros.] A couple of years ago, Frances McDormand, at the Oscars, she made that speech, and it was the first time I actually heard that there was something you could put in writing, that I could actually put into place.
When I first started my production company, I knew I was going to do something like that, naturally, bringing other people of color, underrepresented groups onto a project, onto my crew, in my cast, and be reflecting the world that I live in.
Bryan, does the completed film live up to your expectations?
Bryan Stevenson: Oh yes. I’m very excited about it. And I’m really eager for people to see it. I think it will, hopefully, give us an opportunity to talk about things that people need to hear. So I’m super excited.
Just Mercy premieres next month at the Toronto International Film Festival. The drama will get a limited release in select theaters on Dec. 25 and expand nationwide on Jan. 10.