The Movie Star And Civil Rights Attorney Bryan Stevenson He Plays Discuss The Film’s Importance

By Ronda Racha Penrice, Urban News Service
A Zenger News Division

Three decades after the helped Montgomery Bus Boycott launched the civil rights movement in 1955, activist and death row attorney Bryan Stevenson came to Alabama’s capital city to spark a new, quieter movement for social justice. Since 1989, Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, has overturned more than 135 death sentence convictions in Alabama.

One of his first cases – in which an African-American pulp worker named Walter “Johnny D” McMillian was falsely convicted for the murder of a white woman in 1986 – is the focus of the new film “Just Mercy” starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx as Stevenson and McMillian.

Adapted from Stevenson’s New York Times bestselling book 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. According to statistics found on EJI’s website, Black Americans make up 42 percent of the people on death row and 34 percent of those executed despite being only 13 percent of the overall population of the United States. And Alabama sentences more people to death per capita than any other state.

The Alabama Department of Corrections reports that 86 of the 175 people currently on its death row are Black – or nearly 50 percent of the total even though African-Americans comprise about 26 percent of the state’s population. McMillian was one of them in case that was a clear miscarriage of justice. Despite eyewitness accounts, including from a police officer, that he was attending a church fish fry when the murder occurred, he was found guilty.

His real “crime” was that he was dating a white woman. “The only reason I’m here,” McMillian 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 truth and justice.

It was Stevenson’s combination of brilliance and persistence that compelled Jordan to bring his story 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 said hours before he and Stevenson 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 platform in which to address the racial inequities in our country overall and the criminal justice system specifically.

“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 said. “One of his famous quotes is that ‘we’re all more than the worst thing than 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.”

Stevenson believes that the film’s message couldn’t be more timely or 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.

“So, cinema has a long history of being incredibly influential on issues I think about domestic violence, I think about the role of women and I think about how we deal with disability, how we deal with people who are disfavored in other spaces,” he continued. “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, and can be seen everywhere January 10.

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