A powerful and thought-provoking true story, “Just Mercy” follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice.
After graduating from Harvard, Bryan might have had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson). One of his first, and most incendiary, cases is that of Walter McMillian (Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings and overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds—and the system—stacked against them.
The film is being produced by two-time Oscar nominee Gil Netter (Life of Pi, The Blind Side) and Asher Goldstein (Short Term 12), with Mike Drake, Michael B. Jordan, Bryan Stevenson, Gabriel Hammond, Daniel Hammond and Niija Kuykendall serving as executive producers. Cretton is helming the film from a screenplay he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle), based on Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Published in 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, the book has spent 118 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers List, and counting, and was named one of the year’s best books by a number of top publications, including TIME Magazine. For the book, Stevenson also won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, an NAACP Image Award, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction.
The Knockturnal: Gentleman, congratulations. This is an amazing film. Such an important message for us to see. Talk about how it affected you and what it meant to you to be apart of this project? Like, I know I would take it home every day. And I’m sure that would be hard for you guys to do. So how did you deal with this process while filming this?
Micheal B. Jordan: It’s something that I’ve been developing for four or five years, you know? I knew what I was getting ready to get myself into. Developing a script, getting to know Bryan…you know, really educating myself on his work with E.J.I. [Equal Justice Initiative] his organizations. The cases that he’s had…going down south and actually shooting in Alabama. Going to the places revisiting … walking through actual cotton fields, being in those courthouses…there’s a level of energy and weight to those rooms that you know what happens here. That you know what has happened. You never really fully drop it. You never fully walk away from it, you know? I think it’s a weight that stayed on you throughout the entire time of filming. You didn’t want to leave it. You want to stay in it. You know once you start to get into that place, you want to immerse in it, you want to stay in that place as long as you can. And even afterwards… we’re still having these conversations, we’re still championing this movie all the way through the finish line and beyond, because we can’t get fatigued, we can’t stop having this conversation. That’s the only way real change is going to happen change is if you keep going. So, you know, that’s why the people that we had involved, the cast, the crew, the producers, the studio, all people that are in it for the long haul, you know, this isn’t something that we’re just going to stop. You’re not going to hear me stop talking about this. We’re going to continue to push forward … but that’s, that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it.
The Knocturnal: Jaime you were amazing on this. I know you had the book and you had Bryan but were you able to talk to some of the family?
Jaime Foxx: No, you know what? I relied on Micheal and humbled and honored to be in this film side-by-side with him telling this wonderful story and I got information from Bryan, I got things that we saw and video. But then it was just myself, Micheal, and director Destin [Daniel Cretton] fine-tuning who Walter would be … So, by not having Walter around it was great to have… you know Michael… [as the] fantastic sounding board. And then when we got on set it was just off to the races.
The Knockturnal: Gentlemen, I’d like to call you guys the backbone of this film. You guys both killed it. You’re both busier than ever. Talk about how this story touched you and why’d you take the time to do this one?
Tim Blake Nelson: Bryan Stevenson. Getting to help tell his story, I think, for both of us was a huge difference-maker. And then you add on to that, a beautiful script. That really.., focuses an extraordinary book into a two-hour film and the script seemed to make all the right choices in terms of how to tell Bryan’s [Stevenson] story and Walter McMillian’s story. Great cast including Rob [Morgan] here, and a wonderful director. This was just irresistible. And I think the movie is an essential one for people to see. And that’s the kind of movie you wake up … wanting to be apart of.
Rob Morgan: Yeah, I mean everything Tim [Blake Nelson] just said. Just to be apart of some art that can create a positive change in our society as artists and actors. I think we thrive to be apart of those kind of projects. Which come around every now and then. So yeah, and then to play with like this stellar cast, and to have Daniel [Destin Daniel Cretton] as a director leading us on with Warner Bros. actually behind it as much as they are behind it. It’s a win-win situation.
The Knocturnal: You both have really heavy scenes of you particularly in the jail cell … I don’t want to ruin the movie for everybody. But, when you have that moment, talk about the toughest day on set for you? What was that tough scene that really took a lot out of you?
Rob Morgan: Oh man you know what? I approach my work as a play. You know what I mean, like when I was taught we go to a play we’re not going to see brain surgery. You know what I mean? So, if I’m having fun then the audience can have fun. If I’m not having fun, then the audience ain’t going to have fun. So you know that scene, as heavy and as hard as it was, I was having fun man. You know what I mean? Because I’m living a dream essentially. You know, and I only had to do it for like, what? Maybe… eleven hours? Where Herbert Richardson had to do that every day of his life to that moment. Like it was real for him, like, real-real. It was real for me, but thank God I got to take the outfit off, go home, shower, call my mom say “Hi,” you know what I mean? Cook my own food. So when I’m there in it, I’m there in it. But once it’s done man, I’m back to me.
The Knockturnal: What about you Tim?
Rob Morgan: That’s healthy for me to do it, that’s what’s healthy for me. You know everybody has their own process, but in my mindset, that’s healthy for me.
Tim Blake Nelson: This was just an inspiring character to get to play because he’s so well drawn in Bryan [Stevenson]’s book and in the script. And I think there’s a sympathetic aspect to the way that he was written. That allowed for me to advocate for him, and find real justification for some pretty terrible things that he does. And I live for that sort of experience because when I get to play a really well written, deeply human character that deepens my own humanity and for that I’m incredibly grateful and that’s why I am an actor.
The Knocturnal: This is such an amazing film. So powerful. The film is based off of your amazing book. Was there something from the book that didn’t make it into the movie?
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, well there’s a lot more in the book. I mean, I write about a lot more clients, there’s a lot of issues that we couldn’t get to in the film that are in the book. We did shoot a scene where Micheal went to a jail to meet one of the young kids. I write a lot about children prosecuted as adults, that’s a big part of my work. And we weren’t able to fit that into the film just because of length. So, the stuff about kids, the stuff about women, being prosecuted, the stuff about the mentally ill doesn’t get the screen time you would want if you read the book. But, the team did such an amazing job telling this story of Walter McMillian. And I’m really proud of it. I think people could see the humanity and dignity of the clients that I represent, the people that I represent and that for me is really important because I think if we understand that injustice, there’s a cost to injustice, there’s a weight to injustice, there’s trauma, there’s abuse. That we care more, we’ll commit to doing more.
The Knockturnal: And it is so important. There are so many active warriors out there today fighting the good fight. What do you think about the modern-day social justice warrior?
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah, well I do feel really excited about the generation of people who are coming up, who are lifting their voices. We have new platforms now. We have all of these tools that didn’t exist when I was a young lawyer and people are taking full advantage of that. We have more advocates and activists and writers and people who care about these issues, lifting their voices, than anytime I can remember in history. That excites me. We just have to remember that, we still have to be tactical we still have to be strategic, we still have to be courageous. We still have to stand when others say, “Sit down”, we still have to speak when others say, “Be quiet.” We can’t do the things we need to do to create justice if we’re unwilling to do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient. And I believe that with the skills and the talent that I now see amongst so many young [social] justice advocates. We got a great opportunity to really push this thing forward.
The Knockturnal: Films like this and shows like When They See Us share the kinds of messages we need out there today. How do you think the film will further the work of your initiative and the message that you’ve been pushing for, for so long?
Bryan Stevenson: Yeah well that’s what’s so amazing about cinema. It’s what’s so amazing about filmmaking, you know? A lot of people will see a movie that won’t read a book. And so we could reach people that we wouldn’t otherwise reach. And I’m just grateful that we have people like Micheal B. Jordan, who care about these issues. I’ve worked with Ava DuVernay on Thirteenth (2016), there’s a whole generation of really talented filmmakers that are making important stories. That highlight critically important issues. And we’ve seen a flood of those this year and I hope we continue to see that– I want this film to succeed not only because I want people to know about our work and the clients that I represented, but I also want Hollywood to make more films like this. There are a lot of stories just like this one. That we need to know and understand if we really want to create the kind of just society that we believe in.
The film hits theaters nationwide this Friday!