When Bryan Stevenson, Jamie Foxx, and Michael B. Jordan took the stage after the screening of their film, Just Mercy on Monday evening in New York City, the audience in the Times Center rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation.
On the stage, the three men expressed a lot of brotherhood and love. Before any of them answered a question they would first give praise to the other two for their work and dedication to their craft and the important contributions they’ve made in the world.
Just Mercy dropped us in the heart of Alabama during the 90’s to tell a true story, based on Stevenson’s 2014 book of the same name. In the film, Jordan plays Stevenson, a Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School graduate from Delaware. He is a lawyer who is determined to help disadvantaged, condemned and forgotten incarcerated persons achieve legal justice.
In the film, he uses his skills and passion to defend people on death row in Alabama who may be innocent or products of biased court rulings, centered on the death row case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan, played by Jamie Foxx.
“I was intimidated, you know?” Jordan said of Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. “To hear him speak I feel like he’s such a much better person than I am and I’m like, ‘You have to do better Mike.’” Both Stevenson and Jordan are executive producers of the film.
In discussion with Melena Ryzik, a culture reporter for The New York Times, Michael explained the importance of the feature and how the overarching theme of justice was not only in the content of the film but, was used as a crucial thread behind the making of the movie as well. Jordan said the project was done with inclusion riders in mind, a provision in an actor’s or filmmaker’s contract which provides for a certain level of diversity in casting and production staff. He spoke about the importance of including not just women, but Black and brown people in Hollywood. Foxx described how he listened to Fred Hampton, activist, and chairman of the Black Panther Party, to get into character to play McMillian.
“To get people off death row was like operating the underground railroad,” Stevenson said. “If we don’t change the environment outside of the courtroom we’ll never get the justice we need. And that’s what made me feel like we needed to talk about this more publicly.”
“We’re not free in this country,” Stevenson continued. “There’s smog in the air created by decades and centuries of racial inequality and we’re a post-genocide society. We haven’t talked about what happened to native people when Europeans came to this country and the legacy slavery has created through this consciousness and ideology of white supremacy that we’ve never really confronted.”
Stevenson doted on how proud he was of Jordan’s portrayal of him and Foxx spoke to the dedication Michael put into getting the role right. But Jamie also reminded the audience that Michael was not new to this but true to this. He evoked Jordan’s performance in Fruitvale Station, the story of 22-year-old Oscar Grant who was killed by BART police in 2009 and exclaimed at Jordan’s versatility in his selected roles.
“I heard people weeping because of his performance,” Foxx said. “But then he goes on to Black Panther and it’s the biggest movie in the world and he plays the villain but at the same time, that narrative about caring about us and our culture is put on the big stage in America. And now he takes Just Mercy this wonderful man’s story and he’s finishing an artistic sentence and it won’t be the last sentence he writes. He’s mindful of what we need at the highest point.”
“I think he is this generation’s superhero,” Jordan said of Stevenson. “On his journey and mission, he continues to beat a drum of justice.”
You can watch the story of Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillian unfold in theatres on Christmas day.