By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
Academy-Award winner Jamie Foxx should be polishing up his mantle in anticipation of another Oscar for his spectacular role as Walter McMillian in “Just Mercy.” He and Michael B. Jordan, who portrays attorney Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 1989, are not cozy at first, because McMillian has been led up this road before. Up until this point in 1993, he has never been successful in receiving an appeal or getting released from an Alabama prison for the crime of murdering an 18-year-old white woman. The case received prominence in 1992, after the late 60 Minutes’ journalist Ed Bradley highlighted his fate and the circumstances surrounding his wrongful conviction.
He was originally sentenced to life, but in 1988 the judge overrode the jury’s decision and imposed the death sentence—a sentence meted out to thousands of minorities across the country within an unjust criminal justice system.
The EJI works to get McMillian exonerated in Stevenson’s first case in a real-life story of an attorney who is a Harvard lawyer and could have written his own meal ticket but chose to work for the underdogs in this country. But his job isn’t easy. There are obstacles all around—I suppose what is expected in racist Alabama. But the village comes together when they are finally given a chance to help one of their hometown residents.
It’s a heavy film covering an equally heavy topic. Other cast members include Brie Larson, who plays Eva Ansley, Stevenson’s partner in EJI; Tim Blake Nelson who plays a racist, lying, annoying inmate named Ralph Myers; Karan Kendrick, who plays Minnie, Walter’s wife (who moviegoers will learn could just as well turn her head and be unforgiving) and Rob Morgan, who plays an inmate named Herbert Richardson, whose execution Stevenson is unsuccessful in halting.
“Just Mercy” was screened at the recent 55th Chicago International Film Festival, and I was able to interview Kendrick and Nelson about roles that are just as impressive as the accused and attorney.
I asked Kendrick how she braced herself for such a heavy role, as racist after racist game was thrown against her husband, Walter. “In reading the book I saw parallels between that time and things that are still happening,” she said. “However, there has been some progress.”
Kendrick said that she was excited to get this unique role. “When I saw her [Minnie’s] image, the glasses, the hair, the clothing and her mannerisms, as well as heard her speak, I saw my grandmother and that spoke to me immediately. I was intrigued because I hadn’t seen this southern brown woman’s story on the screen.”
She further explained that she often gets bits and pieces in the roles that she plays, and she has to “layer up” to where she wants to be. “I was excited to be able to connect to her history and share that in a way that felt honest. I could take the layers off and really reveal some truths from the way I have experienced southern Black womanhood.”
When asked about how the larger society should view the death penalty she said, “I think something that occurred to me was who do we become if we say it’s OK to kill someone.” She added: “You can’t watch this film and not be changed.”
Nelson played the despicable, racist, “lying through his beady eyes” Myers so well that you knew he would be trouble upon first glance. He said that he prepared well for this role, by studying videos of the real Myers. “I had to let him seep into me rather than me take over the character,” Nelson said.
He said that he and the makeup artist built the character together. “By that time [after about a month of studying] it felt like he was inside of me. I don’t take roles now if there’s not a good amount of time before I’m going to appear on set. It feels irresponsible.”
Nelson talked about debriefing from the themes in “Just Mercy” and what he does to relax. “When I do this type of movie that has a level of gravitas and tragedy to it, I leave the experience energized and invigorated. I am lucky to be a part of it, and I feel that my humanity has been deepened and advanced by proximity to the material.”
Kendrick and I both applaud Stevenson’s commitment for freedom to the unjustly prosecuted that has been known by some for many years and by some just with this film. “He’s like a rattlesnake who won’t give up until justice prevails.”
“Just Mercy” is a film based on a memoir of the same name written by Bryan Stevenson. The film opens in local theaters in Christmas Day, December 25.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, [email protected]