Attorney and criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson has made his share of objections in court, but when he found out Michael B. Jordan would be playing him in the movies, he was OK with it.
“Not going object to that,” said Stevenson, whose best-selling book Just Mercy, an account of his work freeing innocent men from prison and sometimes death row, is now a motion picture (it opened Friday) starring Jordan, and Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.
Stevenson, 59, a native of Milton, Del., and graduate of Eastern University, spent a great deal of time with Jordan as the movie came together, and said the Black Panther star found fundamental aspects of the role to his liking.
"I think his fitness regimen for Creed was pretty grueling. Certainly he didn’t have to bulk up to play me,” said Stevenson, who stopped in Philadelphia to introduce Just Mercy at the Philadelphia Film Festival, where it was the opening night film.
His maternal grandparents lived in Germantown, while he grew up in Milton. Events in both places shaped his views on law and justice. In Delaware, Stevenson attended a grade school that was segregated when he entered in the mid-1960s, and desegregated when he left.
“I remember quite vividly when lawyers came to our community and made changes. The fact that they had the power to open up the schools and end segregation never left me,” said Stevenson, who went on to graduate from Cape Henlopen High and Eastern University — and then on to Harvard.
At Eastern, he directed the gospel choir, as befits a man who grew up in the church, and who has held fast to a belief in forgiveness and redemption, no matter how sorely tested — when Stevenson was 16, his maternal grandfather, Clarence Golden, was murdered in Philadelphia, stabbed to death during a robbery. For death penalty advocates, that’s a death-penalty case. For Stevenson, who doesn’t believe in it, a life sentence was sufficient.
At Harvard he honed his interest in law, race, and poverty and upon graduation worked with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Georgia. He started a nonprofit, now the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., in 1989, and in the years since has freed more than 100 wrongly convicted prisoners.
One of those cases is the focus of Just Mercy, which follows Stevenson’s effort to delay the execution and overturn the conviction of Walter McMillian (Foxx).
Stevenson said he was actually not eager to see the book adapted into a film. In fact, he initially wasn’t keen on the idea of writing a book, but came to see the value of getting his story into the public sphere.
“There is a struggle for justice in the country, and there is also a narrative struggle. It’s there in our politics. There are narratives of fear and anger, and they are powerful, and I saw a need to counter that,” said Stevenson, who said his work has been inspired by steps taken in South Africa after apartheid.
“You have other countries that have endured horrific human-rights abuses, and they have responded to that with a process of truth and reconciliation. That’s why, for me, it has become important to talk about this need for truth telling, bearing witness to things that really matter,” Stevenson said.
For Stevenson, this has also meant building through the auspices of the EJI the National Monument to Peace and Justice (a monument to lynching victims), and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery. They call attention to a history of racism that, he said, is inseparable from the racial injustice that exists within our contemporary criminal justice system, a point driven home in Just Mercy.
The book attracted immediate interest from Hollywood, but he worried that a movie would modify or dilute what he’d written.
“I felt really strongly the movie had to be curated in exactly the right way, that there wouldn’t be a Hollywood compromise, or a reversion to formula. But working with Michael and [director Destin Daniel Cretton] they have been responsive and thoughtful throughout.”
Stevenson expressed his concern that the movie might lean on conventional courtroom movie theatrics that would make Just Mercy feel artificial. The process of freeing McMillian was often a dispiriting marathon, full of reversals and ups and downs and bleak days, and he wanted that all in there, so that the moment of justice felt earned.
He also insisted that the parallel story of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a guilty man whose conviction remains in place and whose execution is seen in excruciating detail, be part of the movie. Stevenson believes that what he sees as the immoral cruelty of capital punishment is just as evident in those scenes.
The focus, though, is on McMillian, who was convicted and sentenced to death on evidence so flimsy that prosecutors spend most of their time on appeal trying to hide it.
These moments underscore the realities of a legal system that, as Stevenson likes to say, “treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” And where you are five times more likely to go prison, he said, if you are black.
The march to justice in Just Mercy mirrors what Stevenson sees nationwide, where efforts to reform the system are agonizingly slow and prone to setbacks.
But Stevenson sees progress — increasing bipartisan support for reconsideration of mandatory sentencing, for instance, and growing awareness that using police and prisons to fight the war on drugs is a poor and inefficient substitute for treating addiction.