'Just Mercy' stars hope great storytelling will effect change

Karen Butler
Michael B. Jordan arrives for the world premiere of Just Mercy during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 6. File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI
Michael B. Jordan arrives for the world premiere of "Just Mercy" during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 6. File Photo by Chris Chew/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- Just Mercy co-stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson say they are trying to use great storytelling on screen to change people's hearts and minds toward issues about which they care.

Set for theatrical release Wednesday, the film casts Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, a real Alabama lawyer who has dedicated his life to helping death row inmates.


"We try to use our storytelling purposes to frame things differently, to change perception," Jordan recently told reporters during a roundtable interview in New York.

Just Mercy focuses on the case of Stevenson's client, Walter McMillian (Foxx), an African-American man wrongfully sentenced to be executed for a murder he did not commit. Larson plays Stevenson's assistant, and Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan and O'Shea Jackson Jr. portray McMillian's fellow inmates. Destin Daniel Cretton co-wrote and directed the movie.

"A phrase [from the film] of 'you are guilty the moment you were born' is because they see us as black, as being automatically guilty, a black man as automatically being a threat, automatically being bad because of propaganda, because of news, because of the click bait, because of the way we've been framed for a really long time. So, trying to use that same medium to reverse those things is something that takes time," Jordan said.


Django Unchained and Ray alum Foxx praised Jordan as a trailblazer for his work on Just Mercy, Fruitvale Station and Black Panther -- projects that inspire and educate audiences while reflecting rarely seen aspects of the African-American experience.

"He now plants his flag with art that has the ability to tell those narratives," Foxx said of Jordan.

"People are hungry to see what the next step is and how he is shaping our culture with his art, so it is definitely an incredible tool. But, at the same time, he still entertains."

The 24-hour TV news cycle and social media shine light on racism and injustice, including instances in which people of color have been mistreated or killed by law enforcement officers.

But Jordan, Foxx and Larson think it is important to explore these issues in dramatic spaces because it allows viewers to see humanity in people they might judge unfairly or dismiss outright.

"We have to address it, but I think addressing it in a way that is educated on a level that shows we respect our police officers that are doing the respectful things, but we detest the other things that they do and we ask those good police officers to every once in a while just say, 'Hey, we've got to fix this,'" Foxx said.


Added Larson, "These are incredible opportunities for us to share the intimacy of these people in a way that is, hopefully, just the first step of many of getting closer to these issues."

She said the biopic about slain Tejano singer Selena made her want to become an actress because it showed her a world so different from her own.

"I got to learn about issues that I didn't know about previously. That just became embedded and part of me," the Captain Marvel actress said. "The first film I did with Destin was Short Term 12 . We made that movie for basically $2, and that film [about youths in group homes] took me and him all over the world, and we got to see the impact at the end of every screening, of people going, 'I didn't know this was happening and now I have to do something.'"

Jordan said he tried to capture the essence of Stevenson in his performance and consulted the lawyer by phone, text and in person when he had questions.

"He's a really cool guy. He's very humble. I thought he was kind of auditioning me, making sure I had all the right credentials to play him before we actually signed on to start making the movie. He is a wealth of knowledge," Jordan said.


"He is extremely busy. He was always going in and out of the Supreme Court, fighting a different case. That really let you know we were just making a movie ... He's dealing with life and death every day."

Stevenson -- who is quick to point out crimes aren't put in prison, but people are -- said that allowing a film to be made about his life was a leap of faith.

"I was very apprehensive because I have seen movies get made from books that I don't think are very responsive to the themes. Movies can sometimes compromise things in ways that can be frustrating," the attorney said. "Michael's involvement got me comfortable. Not only is he extremely talented, but he cares deeply about these issues."

Stevenson also was a fan of Short Term 12 and thought Cretton did an excellent job of creating nuance.

"He didn't have this view of just villains and just heroes and I thought that was important," the lawyer said.

"Jamie got involved [in Just Mercy] and, as someone who grew up in the South, had a real understanding of the weight that you carry when you are presumed dangerous and guilty. My confidence began to grow. The whole team was so committed to doing this right," Stevenson said.


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