For Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan, working on the new film Just Mercy was an opportunity to flex their star power on an issue that hits close to home: The ways in which the criminal justice system is often stacked against minorities, and especially Black people, from the start.
Based on the memoir of the same name by lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the film follows Stevenson (Jordan) as he works to exonerate Walter McMillian (Foxx), a laborer from Monroeville, Alabama, facing the death penalty for a murder he didn’t commit. The real McMillian was released from prison in 1993, and Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, have since worked concertedly to end mass incarceration in the United States. But there is still plenty of work to be done, and both Foxx and Jordan know that dismantling the injustice in this country requires a hard rewiring of how Black people, and Black men in particular, are forced to navigate life.
“You could go out, be having a great day, and just have somebody — the cops — see you and it just be wrong,” Foxx told MTV News of the constant surveillance Black people often face by extension of simply living their lives. “And you can scream this to the top of your lungs. Millions of us are screaming. We do this every day and tell people every single day that being Black is different and people come and go, ‘Hmm.’ So it's sort of like you want sometimes for people to just take this ride and see what it's like.”
Such surveillance has also impacted the actor, who told MTV News about an incident that occurred recently in Los Angeles: Foxx was driving his truck when he pulled into a gas station on the high-traffic Sunset Boulevard. From there, he said a cop decided to make a u-turn and also pull into the gas station parking lot. “He pulled next to me and [was] looking at me like this,” he remembered, adding that he supposed even Los Angeles police “didn't recognize me, I guess he didn't have the box set, the DVD, whatever… He don't know who I am and I'm just like, ‘Hey, hello, brother.’ This mother— look at me like, ‘Eh?’” It wasn’t until a fan approached Foxx for a photo with the star that he says the officer left him alone.
An October 2019 report by the Los Angeles Times found that LAPD officers are more likely to search Black and Latinx people during traffic stops than they are to search white people; the report showed that, over a 10-month period, police searched 24 percent of Black drivers and passengers after pulling them over, compared to 16 percent of Latinx people and 5 percent of white people. While the report notes that “racial disparities do not necessarily indicate bias,” such disparities aren’t uncommon: a Bureau of Justice report also detailed how police are more likely to stop Black residents than Latinx or white residents, and that officers are more likely to use force against people of color than white people. Judges often sentence Black men to prison with longer sentences than white men for the same crime, and Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by a police officer.
“As far as the justice system, my grandmother taught me early that it's gonna be different,” Foxx said. He remembered his grandmother punishing him for being out past curfew, but when he asked why he was being disciplined, he said, “You know what my grandmother told me? ‘Black men can't make white man mistakes. You remember that for the rest of your life.’ Even now when we toil about things like, ‘Well, so-and-so did it and he’s white.’ ‘Yeah, but we're different.’ They look at us differently. You do that, it's just skewed differently. You have to know it.”
Jordan, who also served as executive producer on Just Mercy, told MTV News that he hopes the film helps shed light on the ways in which the system disproportionately affects vulnerable communities. “We're trying to get as many people to see this as possible because it's obviously an epidemic, it's obviously a problem,” he said. “Obviously the system is flawed.” But given that a film centered on social justice may receive different attention than a blockbuster superhero flick (even if those frequently touch on issues of inequality in their own way), it was crucial that everyone working on Just Mercy understand the magnitude of the project they were undertaking.
“The main concern is protecting him [Stevenson], his legacy, and what he's trying to do. Making sure we portray him in the right way, the honest way, what his lifestyle, what his trials and tribulations, what his memoir reflects. That's what we really wanna put on screen,” Jordan explained. “I think everybody involved understood that before they signed on, before they got really involved with it, which makes the process that much easier because everybody has a common goal.”
Foxx agreed, calling the film “one of the most important movies that I've ever been a part of.” (This praise came even before former president Barack Obama called Just Mercy one of his favorite films of 2019.) And he said that Jordan’s presence helped clinch his involvement in the project.
“I will tell you that Michael B. Jordan in this world of… sort of make-believe that we live in, is a stand-up guy, and I mean that,” Foxx said. He felt inspired by the conversation that ensued when Jordan called him to sell him on the script, clinching his belief that telling Stevenson and McMillian’s story together was the right thing to do. “The words that he spoke to me, he gave me the opportunity to have my artistic integrity intact,” Foxx added.
Jordan, who considers Foxx a mentor, continued: “You're defined by who you put on. I can only do this for so long — however long that's gonna be. But your legacy is who you help and who you're able to push forward. And I want to take his example and continue to do that.”