Michael B Jordan has described the “huge responsibility” he felt while playing a real-life lawyer who represents black inmates on death row.
The actor’s latest film Just Mercy premiered in Toronto on Friday.
Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama lawyer who defends inmates who have been wrongly accused or not afforded proper legal representation.
“I wanted to do whatever I could to get this story out to the masses,” Jordan told BBC News.
“Bryan Stevenson is an extremely important man, he’s a national treasure. So whatever I can do to help this man do his job, if this movie is a tool for him, I feel like I’ve contributed a little bit.”
The big screen adaptation of Stevenson’s 2014 memoir – Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and also stars Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson.
The film sees Foxx play Walter McMillan, a man imprisoned after being accused of the murder of a young white woman, despite evidence which proved his innocence.
He is placed on death row a year before he has actually been put on trial, and is one of the inmates whose case is taken on by Stevenson.
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“Being from the south, having gone through certain things myself gives me the DNA of what this is about,” Foxx said on the red carpet.
But, he stressed: “They tested the movie with an all-black audience and it tested at 97 [out of 100], and then they tested it with an all-white audience and it tested at 98. So it lets you know people are ready to see it and feel it.”
Stevenson told BBC News: “I think we’ve heard the data, we’ve heard the statistics, but we haven’t really understood what it means to be the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. To be a nation that condemns people wrongly and unfairly.
“It’s only when you see what happens up close, the trauma, the abuse, that I think you’re motivated to demand change.
“I’m really hoping the film mobilises people, energises people, encourages people to expect more from our systems of justice, that too often treat you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. I’m hoping the film will wake people up to that reality.”
The lawyer and author joked: “I told Michael B Jordan he could keep his Black Panther body when he played me, I didn’t want him going on a diet or anything!”
Jordan admitted: “Four years ago, when I first got approached for the project, I didn’t know that much about the work he was doing down in Alabama. So I took that as a personal challenge.”
The actor is well known for portraying Erik Killmonger in Black Panther – the hugely successful Marvel movie which also starred Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o. Jordan has also starred in Creed and That Awkward Moment.
Just Mercy received broadly positive early reviews after its Canadian debut on Friday night, with several critics making reference to its potential in awards season.
“In what is already shaping up to be a fierce competition in the lead and supporting male acting categories, Jordan and Foxx just entered the race,” said Marc Malkin in Variety.
“A couple of Foxx’s scenes are transfixing enough to make you hold your breath without realising it,” added John DeFoe in The Hollywood Reporter.
But, he said: “The big courtroom moments the film constructs for Stevenson, by contrast, sound like prepackaged American idealism. That’s not to deny that every thing he says is 100% true; but speeches don’t always make for great movies, even in courtrooms where they beg to be delivered.”
Writing in IndieWire, Eric Kohn said the film’s main storyline “doesn’t contain nearly enough twists to justify the 136-minute runtime, especially given how many of its circumstances are predetermined”.
He concluded: “It may not be groundbreaking cinema – but as a celebration of what it takes to eke out justice in a broken system, it’s a welcome return to formula.”