After more than 30 years leading the Equal Justice Initiative, founder Bryan Stevenson knows the shocking data about U.S. imprisonment and wrongful death sentences. He’s been fighting to secure freedom for many sitting in cells across the country waiting for their government-sanctioned executions and knows firsthand that one in nine of those there are innocent. He knows that 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States today and that approximately 50 percent of young men of color are in jail, prison or on parole.
In the new film “Just Mercy,” also the title of Stevenson’s 2015 New York Times bestselling book, a lot is added to those vast numbers while also dwindling them down to one individual, personifying them in the real-life case of Walter McMillan, played by Jamie Foxx. A husband and father who — after an affair with a married white woman — found himself the prime suspect in a homicide investigation of a white teenage girl, McMillan was arrested and sentenced to death based on testimony from two criminals, despite there being several Black members of the community who could place McMillan far from the scene of the crime at the time of the killing.
The movie chronicles the advent of the Equal Justice Initiative as Stevenson, portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, spends years trying to prove McMillan’s innocence, fighting against an Alabama justice system that seems more concerned about closing the case than finding a killer.
Through its drama, humor and compelling depictions by the cast, including Brie Larson, known for her role in “Captain Marvel,” as Stevenson’s colleague Eva Ansley, the film takes viewers to death row where convicted felons find themselves in the unnatural posture of knowing the exact date and time of their last breath, a form of torture in and of itself.
Several moments in the film, based in the late ‘80s, harken back to the days of slavery: McMillan and his fellow inmates confined to quarters that offer little more than a cot, men being forced to work in the fields while others oversee, the imprisoned being physically handled and controlled by those in authority and the fear that one wrong word or move might lead to your death or that of a loved one. Slavery didn’t end in 1865, Stevenson asserts, referring to the year the 13th Amendment passed, it just evolved.
The narrative of racial difference — the ideology that whites are inherently superior and Blacks inferior — that was created and accepted during the days government-sanctioned slavery continued, according to Stevenson. “We lose the title of slave and gain the title of criminal,” he said at a recent screening of the film.
With “Just Mercy,” Stevenson attempts to challenge that narrative, what he refers to as the “true evil” of slavery, by humanizing McMillan and other death row inmates and presenting them as flawed humans who, like all of us, should be judged and defined by more than our worse acts or moments. They are no less than the white man who wrongly accused McMillan.
That presumption of criminality is what African Americans still fight against today, Stevenson suggests, mentioning the instances of unarmed Black men killed by police.
“The great pain is that if you’re Black or brown, you can be a talented journalist, you can be a museum executive, you can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor, you can be a college professor, but if you’re Black or brown, you will go places where you’re going to have to navigate the presumption of dangerousness and guilt, and it starts to wear you down,” said Stevenson.
In the film, that pain surfaces for Stevenson when he’s threatened by police officers, but their actions remind him that he’s just as vulnerable as his clients, which he has more in common with than not, despite his Harvard education. That allows him to relate to them on a deeper level and motivates him to secure their freedom.
While he can spout off numbers and data to emphasize the inequality present in our criminal justice systems, Stevenson can be most proud when he speaks of the more than 140 death row inmates for which the Equal Justice Initiative has helped secure relief, reduced sentences or release.
“I know what it’s like to be in the shadows,” his character said in the film. “We all need some measure of unmerited grace.”