Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and the author of the memoir Just Mercy and an Executive Producer of the film of the same name based on his writing, which stars Michael B Jordan (as Stevenson), Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. The book It tells the true story of Walter McMillian, who appeals his wrongful murder conviction with the help of Stevenson, who was, as a young lawyer, trying to address glaring problems in the US justice system.
What made you write the book Just Mercy?
Well, you know, it’s funny. I was committed to my work and believed that, strategically, we could be more effective for our clients if we didn’t create any distractions. But I got to a point about ten years ago where I began to realise that we were not going to achieve the kind of justice I sought if we just stayed in the courts. There was so much that had to happen politically and socially and culturally, and that’s when it became clear we had to start talking more broadly about these issues, the things I had seen. And that was the impetus to begin talking about these issues, so I did a TED Talk and then made the decision to write a book, just to bring people into the world that I’d been working in for quite some time. The Walter McMillian story, which became the backbone of the book, was intended initially to just be one chapter, but I realised that it provided a platform for bringing into play a lot of the issues that apply to the poor, the plight of people of colour, the plight of people who are innocent, the plight of people who are in systems that are politically motivated. And I just couldn’t get away from the irony of working on a case in the same community where Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. So I knew that would be the spine of it, and then I wanted to talk about the various kinds of clients I’ve represented: children, women, people with mental disabilities, people who live on the margins of society, and my editor was very generous in allowing me to take that approach.
As someone who works outside the entertainment industry, why do you think films like Just Mercy are important?
I think films have a history of having a profound impact on how people think about issues. I am persuaded that we have to change the narratives that shape the policy issues and debates. So I’ve always been impressed with the power of films to really have an impact on how people think, and a lot of critical social justice issues have advanced because of what’s happened in the film industry. We’ve made progress on things like marriage equality largely in part because we’ve been exposed to stories and narratives about people who fall in love who may be the same gender, and that has a profound impact on how people think about these issues. And so I think storytelling is key to how a society evolves, to how they mature, to how they recover from histories of bias and bigotry. And that has a lot to do with the film industry, so I’m excited that it’s shining its light on the issues that I work on.
What was it like to watch Michael B Jordan’s portrayal of you unfold?
I was so honoured that he put so much of himself in this role. We spent a lot of time together before the shoot began, and I could tell he was just taking this seriously and I was impressed. The thing that I admired most about his performance was the sincerity with which he went at it. I think he gave an extraordinary performance. He’s an amazingly talented human being and a nice guy, too. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him and working with him. It’s been a thrill and it’s one of the things I enjoyed most about this project.
How did Jamie Foxx do capturing Walter?
When I first saw the film, the opening scene is Jamie cutting down a tree, and it was stunning to me because he looked so much like Walter McMillian in that scene. And it really got to me. He brought Walter’s character to life in ways that were really powerful.
And what about Brie Larson as Eva Ansley?
I think it’s so important that people who see this film come away with the idea that you don’t have to be a lawyer to make a difference. With the character of Eva Ansley, who I’ve worked with for over 30 years, it was so important to bring to the story that as a non-lawyer, she’s done all kinds of things to make justice work happen. For me, it was important that we honour the work of people who do justice work each and every day, who don’t necessarily go into court and argue as lawyers. Brie is amazing in this role. \ She’s such a talented actress and she captured the dedication and commitment of the people who work at EJI [Equal Justice Initiative], and the humour that you sometimes have to have to manage all of these things. I love the way she’s undeterred – not intimidated, not turned around. And that resolute determination is so important when you’re trying to do justice work. It was an honour to have her in this film.
How do you think this story will resonate with international audiences?
I think all across the world we are at risk of being governed by fear and anger. I see movements in Africa and in Asia and Europe and South America and all across the planet. There is always the temptation to give into the politics of fear and anger, and we start to other-ise other people – we exclude people, we marginalise people, we disfavor people based on their status, their ethnicity, their colour. And I think it’s a global threat. And what I’m excited about is that this movie is about rejecting the politics of fear and anger, not being governed by that, and I think fear and anger are the essential ingredients of injustice, of oppression and we see that in this film. And if this story can cause people to understand how we can never accept fear and anger as a pathway to power, as a way to govern, as a way to live, then we can begin to demand the things that a just society requires. I hope this film will be joined by other stories and narratives that help us get past that, because it is a threat to our peace and security in the world and I’m excited to share what we’ve done in Alabama as a model for hopefully the kind of work that will happen all over the globe.
Can you talk about the work of the non-profit organisation you founded, the Equal Justice Initiative?
EJI is a human rights organisation that provides legal services to the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. We are committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment. We believe that you have to be vigilant and determined to create a just society and that you have to speak truth to power. But mostly we believe in basic human rights. We believe in basic human dignity. There have to be people in the world who are advocating on behalf of the disfavored, the least among us, regardless of gender or religion or ethnicity or race and EJI tries to do that each day.
Getting back to the film, can you talk about working with Destin Daniel Cretton?
When I was thinking about who we should work with, I saw his film Short Term 12, and it blew me away. It is a powerful film and it represents the dynamics that I hoped would be evident in this film. And he was so humble and so responsive and inviting that it made the process a lot less stressful to know that I was working with somebody who was completely aligned with my vision for what the film could be. And when I saw his first cut of Just Mercy, I was so proud of him because he did exactly what I had hoped, which was to bring to life, in a very human way, an important story about inequality and justice, but also a story about hope and redemption.
What does the title mean to you?
I put the word ‘mercy’ in the title because a lot of the time we talk about justice as if it is disconnected from mercy. I believe a society that understands the power of mercy to redeem is one that has the potential to be great.