Michael B. Jordan takes on the American justice system in powerful true-life drama

Michael B. Jordan in 'Just Mercy.' (Warner Brothers)
Michael B. Jordan in 'Just Mercy.' (Warner Brothers)

Michael B. Jordan and Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson star in the inspiring drama, Just Mercy.

A powerful and thought-provoking true story, it follows young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson).

One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian (Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the only testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie.

In this Q&A Michael shares his experiences of bringing this real-life story to the big screen, and what is was like working alongside his acclaimed co-stars.

How did you first hear about Bryan Stevenson’s work and the book Just Mercy and what made you want to be a part of this project as both an actor and producer?

I think the first time I heard about Bryan Stevenson was through the book Just Mercy. Then when I got a chance to listen to his TED Talk, I felt like I was behind—like I should have known about him and the work that he was doing because he is truly a real-life hero of our time who has been fighting for equal justice and saving lives for decades.  That made me run towards this project even more.  I listened to the audiobook of Just Mercy, which greatly impacted me because I got a chance to actually listen to Bryan narrate his own book.

There is something about the way he speaks that’s unique to him, that makes him so special. He brings this humanity, this kind of optimism, this visceral feeling that makes you think and feel something. I knew I had to be a part of this in some way, and I took the responsibility very seriously.  It was a challenge for myself; it was like, man, I can’t mess this up. I realised the importance of what he was doing and what this movie could possibly do to change minds and hearts. And I got the chance to play someone who’s actually here, and I could pick his brain and ask questions and really get to know him and study him, not just through the people that know him best and whatnot. So, that was a huge resource for me.  I just wanted to capture the essence of who he is and this beautiful script that Destin [Daniel Cretton] directed and co-wrote. Those are all the reasons I wanted to do it.

How do you think this American story will resonate with international audiences?

I think there’s oppression all over the world. I think there’s a power struggle all over the world. I believe people who know what it’s like to be in systemic oppressed communities would be able to connect with this story, no matter their race, creed or colour.  I think everybody’s going to be able to connect with this story in some way. It’s a human story. It’s a question of right and wrong, so anyone who has any type of moral compass, and can discern what’s fundamentally unjust, what’s unfair, what’s just not right…there’s going to be a connection there. There’s going to be a hope and an optimism that I think all people will be able to take away from this movie and feel like they too matter, that they can make a change, that they can do something to help. This film shows us that one person, anywhere, can make a difference.

As a producer, as well as an actor, what did Destin Daniel Cretton bring to the table? 

Destin brings an authenticity and real-life experience to the table.  The films that he’s made have a certain honest human experience makes people feel and think. He’s also collaborative but sticks to his guns and does what he feels is right to honour the story and the characters, so I think Destin is the perfect person for Just Mercy

Can you talk about working with Jamie Foxx and the relationship that develops between Bryan and his client Walter McMillian?

First of all, Jamie is an incredible actor and one of my mentors, somebody I’ve looked up to for a really long time. And as actors in the industry, sometimes you’ve got friends and you say, “One day we’re going to work together,” and it never happens. So as soon as this opportunity came up, I knew he would be perfect for it, and I’m so happy it worked out. That being said, when you’re working with your friends, it’s sometimes easier to play tension and conflict very well, because you have the comfort to push the limit and go to those places.

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in 'Just Mercy.'

(A POWERFUL BOND: Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy. Photo: Warner Brothers)

There’s always that chemistry and that bond there, and that’s kind of what it was like for me and Jamie in those first couple of meetings between Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillian, where Bryan is having to prove myself to this man and to show him that he’s not just another lawyer, a fancy city boy that’s coming down here thinking he could change something. So, those first couple scenes were very intense, but also, I think they were very necessary to give Bryan that push to dig deeper to find his process, to find his way into these cases.  I think that was a powerful moment in Bryan’s life and in Walter’s life as well, that allowed Bryan to discover who he was and what kind of attorney he was going to be.  So I think that was really important to show. 

Bryan has an ally in Eva Ansley. What was it like working with Brie Larson?

This was my first time working with Brie, but we’ve known each other since our first big run—when I was promoting Fruitvale Station and she was on Short Term 12. We got a chance to get to know each other then.  And again, it was one of those things where we said one day we’re going to work together. And I loved the way it turned out that we got the chance to work together on this film. She’s a phenomenal actor, really smart, and asked the right questions, and she’s a true activist for change as a person.  I could go on and on about her. So to take that pioneering spirit, that essence of who Brie is, and to put that into Eva was a genius move by Destin. Eva’s relationship with Bryan is crucial, and I think Brie did an amazing job.


Just Mercy opens in SA cinemas on Friday, 21 February. 

Compiled by Leandra Engelbrecht.

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