Telling a story as raw and essential as the legal exploits recounted by lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy is hard enough to get right when it comes to putting such moments into a printed narrative. But when such a book becomes a New York Times bestseller, Hollywood is bound to come calling when it comes to adapting such real life tales of fighting for justice.
As such, Bryan Stevenson was a bit reticent to have his stories turned into a major motion picture. Which means the fact that the team of director Destin Daniel Cretton, producer Gil Netter, and star Michael B. Jordan instilled the confidence Stevenson needed to agree to participate in Just Mercy’s production all the more triumphant.
In support of the film’s theatrical release, which has started a limited platform rollout as of Christmas Day, I was able to speak with Bryan Stevenson about how he was eventually convinced to bring Just Mercy to the big screen, despite his hesitations. This yielded Stevenson’s recollection of the process that helped him make that decision, which he presented as follows:
I was absolutely hesitant, but meeting Destin, who had made Short Term 12, he was so committed to doing this in the right way. I was very encouraged by that, and when Michael came in, not only is he an extraordinarily talented actor, he’s also deeply committed to these issues.
An interesting fact to note is that of Bryan Stevenson citing director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film Short Term 12 as an influential factor in Stevenson’s decision to move forward with this incarnation of Just Mercy. A fictional narrative, based on Cretton’s time working in a group home for teenagers, that particular film boosted the director’s profile, as well as that of actors Brie Larson and Rami Malek, both of whom starred in Short Term 12, and went on to become Academy Award winning actors in their own rights.
For Bryan Stevenson to latch onto that film as a signpost for Destin Daniel Cretton’s work with social issues is quite inspiring. It’s also the culmination of the efforts of Just Mercy’s producers, one of which is the man who plays Stevenson in the film, Michael B. Jordan.
With almost half a decade of work put into developing Just Mercy, and Jamie Foxx in mind for the role of the wrongfully convicted Walter McMillian, Jordan has most certainly put a lot of time into getting this picture in the works. But if it wasn’t for producer Gil Netter moving on securing the rights to Bryan Stevenson’s book, Cretton might not have signed onto the film in the first place.
Even more impressive is the fact that Netter secured Just Mercy’s theatrical future before the book component was even published, back in 2014. So much as Bryan Stevenson was moved by the movies to tell his stories of fighting to overturn the wrongful convictions of men like Walter McMillian, Herbert Richardson, and Anthony Ray Hinton, Destin Daniel Cretton was moved by Gil Netter presenting him with the story of Just Mercy to be adapted by his own hand.
Which leads us to the actual footage of my discussion with Stevenson, presented in an excerpt below.
What’s more powerful than Bryan Stevenson’s reaction to Just Mercy’s filmmaking team vindicating his faith in the project is how he feels his former client and departed friend, Walter McMillian, would have felt about the film.
Passing in 2013, roughly 20 years after Stevenson’s efforts to acquit him were rewarded, McMillian was sadly unable to see Bryan’s book go into publication. However, if he were able to have seen the end result, Bryan Stevenson thinks Walter would have reacted thusly:
I know he would have been so honored by the film. Jamie’s performance is really striking, in a lot of ways. He also shares an uncanny resemblance to Walter McMillian. I think for a lot of people who go through these things, there’s never any acknowledgement of what you went through, that you have to kind of suffer in silence with what you’ve had to deal with, [that] nobody cares about it. And to now see it presented in this way, it’s very affirming. I shared it with [Walter’s] family, and to a person, what they wanted to say was how gratifying it is to see what they went through acknowledged in this way. So I think he’d be super proud, super happy that his story might contribute to something that could cause us to be more committed to justice.
It’s one thing to tell the story of Just Mercy in such a way that it convinces Bryan Stevenson that his life has been accurately portrayed on screen. But it’s another, greater testimony to the efforts of Stevenson, alongside the creative team of Destin Daniel Cretton, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Foxx, that the film can bring a measure of peace to the family who had to live through the infamous events it covers.
Taking the risk to allow a story so important as Walter McMillian and Bryan Stevenson’s quest for justice is doubly rewarded in the light of such revelations. And it also makes the fact that Just Mercy started its release strategy with a limited unveiling on Christmas Day.
Though if audiences are eager to see this true story come to life on the big screen, they won’t have to wait for long, as the movie has a wide rollout slated for January 10th, 2020. You’ll find this and many other upcoming films listed on the full 2020 release schedule which you can head over to in order to see what other films will be starting out the new year in style.