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Bryan Stevenson Wants to Liberate People from the Lie That Their Life Doesn’t Matter

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Since 1973, 166 people in the US have been exonerated from death row. In 2018 alone, wrongly convicted people lost more than 1,600 years of their lives behind bars. Many exonerated individuals never received any form of reparations. One man, Anthony Ray Hinton, spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Though he was exonerated with the help of the Equal Justice Initiative in 2015, Hinton has not received an apology from the state, or from anyone involved in his prosecution, for the years stolen from him.

The film Just Mercy, which releases January 10, provocatively beckons all—especially the US church—to confront the unjust nature of our nation’s criminal justice system. The film provides a sobering glimpse into how race, class, and systemic sin inform culpability and judicial verdicts. Revolving around the faith-rooted activism of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michal B. Jordan) and the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Just Mercy recounts the tragic story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). McMillian, or Johnny D., was an African American who owned a lumber company in a small Alabama town and was framed for the murder of Ronda Morrison—an 18-year-old white girl.

The film chronicles Stevenson’s graduation from Harvard Law School and move to Montgomery, Alabama, where he opens a law firm that provides legal defense for those awaiting execution on death row. McMillian’s case was one of the first, and most difficult, cases of Stevenson’s career. Just Mercy illuminates Stevenson’s relentless pursuit of truth and justice, commitments that led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to knight Stevenson as “America’s Nelson Mandela” and enabled EJI to successfully challenge more than 125 death row convictions since 1989.

The US not only has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, we also have more people locked up than any other country in the history of the world. We also have more jails and prisons than degree-granting colleges and universities. In some areas of the country, there are more people living behind bars than on college campuses. Native Americans, Africans, Hispanics, and Southeast Asians are all grossly overrepresented within our justice system. EJI found that for every nine people executed on death row, one is found innocent and released.

US Christians must lament how the politics of fear and anger have tamed our witness in the world. Stevenson points out in his documentary True Justice that everybody imagines that, if they were in Alabama in the 1960s, they would have been marching with Martin Luther King Jr. “And, the truth of it is,” he says, “I don’t think you can claim that if today you are watching these systems be created that are incarcerating millions of people throwing away the lives of millions of people, destroying communities, and you’re doing nothing.”

Amid these lamentations, Stevenson remains a man of hope, love, and conviction. The true measure of our character, he is convinced, is proved through how we treat the poor, disfavored, incarcerated, and condemned.

Christianity Today asked Dominique DuBois Gilliard, director of racial righteousness and reconciliation for the Evangelical Covenant Church and author of Rethinking Incarceration, to talk to Bryan Stevenson about his work and hopes for the film. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the significance of the timing of the film’s release?

This is a critical time in our nation’s history. We’ve been so divided by the politics of fear and anger that it’s easy to stop caring about things we should care about. It’s easy to tolerate things we shouldn’t tolerate. And the way you combat that is to get people closer to inequality, to injustice, to things that are unfair. And that’s what story-making can do. That’s what films can do.