A Division of Zenger News
Over 30 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott launched, civil rights activist and death row attorney Bryan Stevenson came to Alabama’s capital city to spark a new, quieter movement against the death penalty. That was in 1989. Working through his Equal Justice Initiative, which now includes a team of 40 attorneys, Stevenson has since overturned over 135 death sentence convictions in Alabama.
One of Stevenson’s first cases – in which an African-American pulpwood worker named Walter “Johnny D” McMillian was falsely convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman in 1986 – is the focus of the new feature film “Just Mercy” starring Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as McMillian.
Adapted from Stevenson’s New York Times Bestseller of the same name, “Just Mercy” tracks the beginning of the Delaware native and Harvard Law-educated civil rights attorney’s lifelong mission of challenging the death penalty in Alabama and racial injustice everywhere.
The McMillian case was a clear miscarriage of justice, higher courts later found. Despite many eyewitness’ sworn statements that McMillian was at a fish-fry when the murder occurred, he was found guilty by a jury who sentenced him to life in prison before Judge Robert E. Lee Key, Jr. overrode that decision and sentenced McMillian to death. Stevenson’s dogged pursuit of evidence eventually uncovered legal and ethical lapses by police and prosecutors.
McMillian’s real “crime” in Alabama was that he, a married man, was having an affair with a married white woman. “The only reason I’m here,” he said in a 1993 prison interview, “is because I had been messing around with a white lady and my son married a white lady.”
Despite McMillian’s innocence, Stevenson faced long odds and powerful resistance in fighting for justice.
Stevenson’s dramatic story inspired Jordan to bring it to the big screen, as both an actor and executive producer of the film through his production company, Outlier Society. “When I first heard about him, I wasn’t familiar with his work and I was a little embarrassed by that. I was shocked, actually, that he wasn’t more of a household name, [given] how important this man is and the work that he’s doing. So, I wanted to get this movie, get his story, get his legacy out there to as many people as possible,” he told Urban News Service (a division of Zenger News) hours before he and Stevenson, who was by his side, attended a community screening of the film in Montgomery. “If it had that much of an impact on me, then hopefully it will have that type of impact on other people as well.”
For Stevenson — who is also behind the Legacy Museum, which links slavery and lynching to mass incarceration and the death penalty, as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the National Lynching Memorial) — this film gives him a bigger megaphone in which to address the racial inequities and the urgent need for criminal justice reforms.
“I’ve been trying to shine a light on these issues for a really long time,” he said. “I just believe if people saw what I see, they would want the same things that I want. And, obviously, writing a book can be influential, but so many more people will go see a movie than read a book, so this is a huge step forward.”
Jordan said making the film has been an education. “I think Bryan’s approach on things of mercy is something that I definitely have a better understanding about,” the “Black Panther” star explained. “One of his famous quotes that ‘we’re all more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done, let’s stop letting that be able to define you’ is something we should take into consideration when looking at a lot of these issues.”
For Stevenson, the film’s message is timely and urgent. “I’m excited about this moment because things are really tough right now. There’s a lot of division. There’s a lot of polarization,” he said. “Our nation has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We’ve condemned a lot of people unfairly. I think there are thousands of innocent people in our jails and prisons. I don’t think we’ve done enough to deal with that, to respond to that.”
Stevenson believes movies can be a powerful engine for progress. “Cinema has been really important to generating new conversations. If that happens as a result of this film, I will be really excited.”
“Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Rob Morgan, opened in select theaters December 25, with a wide release January 10.