We’re in the thick of Oscar season and there’s one film releasing this winter that’s bound to catch the attention of the Academy—Just Mercy. The film releases nationwide on January 10. It’s based on the #1 New York Times Bestseller book Just Mercy and tells the powerful story of Bryan Stevenson’s life.
Bryan Stevenson is a Christian human-rights lawyer working tirelessly to provide legal counsel to the poorest and most vulnerable inmates in America. He opened the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 1989 and focuses on restoring justice within the prison system. “EJI challenges poverty and racial injustice, advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system and creates hope for marginalized communities.” Not only is Stevenson’s book a runaway success, but he’s also a powerful speaker. In fact, his TED Talk is among the most viewed TED talks in existence—check out his passionate message here:
A powerful film
Just Mercy premiered at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this past September and immediately people began to buzz that the film may win an Oscar. The film stars Michael B. Jordan and Oscar winners Brie Larson and Jamie Foxx. It was directed by award-winning director Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle, Short Term 12).
Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, who we meet as a young Harvard Law School grad in the late 1980s. Eager to offer legal support to the most vulnerable in society, Stevenson moves to the American South and begins working as a defense lawyer in communities where the color of your skin seems to matter more than whether or not you committed a crime. The film depicts Stevenson’s tireless work on the case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and is awaiting execution in Alabama. Brie Larson stars as Eva Ansley, a young woman working alongside Stevenson to establish the Equal Justice Initiative. The film depicts the remarkable diligence it takes, year after year, to exonerate an innocent man.
Speaking to the Christian Post, Michael B. Jordan explained how central the Christian faith was in the film. “Faith and hope is a big part of Bryan Stevenson’s upbringing. He grew up in the church. I did as well, and so did Jamie. And for all of us, faith is directly connected to hope. Bryan is an advocate for hope and optimism, so those were things that were just very important to the story. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to make sure that was incorporated.”
Prison reform is having a moment
In the past few years, leaders across the political spectrum have been working together to reform our prison system. Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West have been making national headlines for their prison reform activism—Kim has helped dozens of prisoners find release and is currently studying to take the bar in 2022. Meanwhile, Kanye has brought his Sunday Service into a Houston jail, bringing joy and hope to the incarcerated. Christian crossover singer Lauren Daigle has also prioritized playing private concerts in prisons in recent years.
With high-profile celebrities and major films like Just Mercy helping to personalize the faces of the people who live behind bars, Americans are taking notice. Can we infuse more compassion into our justice system? Republicans and Democrats seem to be uniting to find a way to say “yes.”
Rethinking the death penalty
America is well-known for being “tough on crime” and in certain communities, there’s widespread support for the death penalty. However, on a national level, support for the death penalty is decreasing; in fact, it’s now at an all-time low.
Stevenson is leading the charge on changing public opinion of capital punishment. He articulately reminds us that “for every 10 people we’ve executed in this country, we’ve now identified an innocent person who’s been released. It’s a shocking rate of error.” Even for the guilty, they may have still been children or gravely mentally ill when they committed their crimes. Stevenson believes that every person deserves mercy and that our justice system can still honor victims, while also removing excess cruelty from the punishment process.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu sums up Stevenson’s impact well; without qualification, he is “America’s Nelson Mandela.”
Be sure to buy your ticket to Just Mercy, releasing January 10. Come with an open heart and prepared to be deeply moved.