Just Mercy, a major motion picture based on Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling book, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday. The film received a standing ovation and moved viewers to ask what they can do to support EJI’s work to challenge the death penalty and mass incarceration in America.
Bryan Stevenson joined director Destin Daniel Cretton, producer and star Michael B. Jordan, and cast members Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Karan Kendrick to speak with audiences and members of the media at TIFF.
The cast and crew were dedicated to making a film that will move people to join EJI’s struggle to end mass incarceration. “Everybody up here didn’t just know their lines,” Mr. Stevenson said. “They gave their hearts to this project.” The goal is that people who see the film will have a better appreciation for why we should never tolerate inequality or injustice. With the film, he said, “maybe we can break down some of the indifference that has allowed these problems to persist.”
Michael B. Jordan explained that he felt a huge responsibility to use his platform to get the story of Just Mercy out to the masses. “I knew that would ultimately give Bryan a tool, something to help him do his job,” he said. “He’s fighting these cases, fighting this cause, day in and day out.”
Rob Morgan portrays Herbert Richardson, a Vietnam veteran on Alabama’s death row who shares a close relationship with Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who live in neighboring cells. “Even though we were in prison,” he said, “there was still a thread of humanity amongst us.”
This type of relationship between Black men is not often seen in the media, he noted, “because a lot of times when Black men are depicted in the media it goes straight to the stereotypical thug element, which desensitizes people to our existence.” This film humanizes Black men, he said, making people less willing to tolerate society’s unjust treatment of them.
Mr. Foxx, Mr. Morgan, and Mr. Jackson’s performances make it hard to deny the humanity of a condemned man on death row, Mr. Stevenson agreed. “We are in the middle of a narrative struggle,” he said. To challenge inequality and injustice, Mr. Stevenson explained, we have to change the narrative that Black people are inferior, less human than white people. “It takes storytelling like this to create a comfort zone, a space where we can have these conversations.”
The film already is compelling viewers to ask how they can get involved and change things. “That’s the power of this,” Mr. Stevenson said. “It’s not just about entertainment. It’s about how we can change the environment so that justice can actually be achieved.”
Karan Kendrick (Minnie McMillian) said that working on the film motivated her to find ways to challenge injustice. “This work forced me to realize that no one can do everything,” she said. “But everyone can do something. And it forced me to ask and answer the question, What is your something?”
Her something, she said, was traveling out of state to visit a family member who has been incarcerated for more than 20 years.
“My something was showing up. It was being present. It was not easy. It was not convenient, [but] it was necessary. And it was my something. I charge each of us to ask and answer, What is my something?”