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Michael B. Jordan: Just Mercy's story shows what a black man goes through... it's the most important movie that I've ever done

Michael B. Jordan is championing diversity and inclusion with his new film Just Mercy, about a lawyer fighting to free a man from death row. He explains how to Laura Harding

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Seeking justice: Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan in Just Mercy

Seeking justice: Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan in Just Mercy

Michael B Jordan

Michael B Jordan

Seeking justice: Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan in Just Mercy

When Frances McDormand collected her Oscar in 2018, Michael B. Jordan was paying attention. The Fargo actress took to the stage as she collected her gong for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and said a phrase that not many people had heard before: inclusion rider.

She was referring to a clause that an actor can insist be inserted in their contract, that requires cast and crew on a film to meet a certain level of racial and gender diversity.

Just three days later, Black Panther actor Jordan announced that he would be adopting this tool at his production company, Outlier Society, and his first film using the rider is finally here.

Just Mercy tells the true story of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his battle to free a man from death row, and Jordan is proud of the diversity of the talent in front of and behind the camera.

"When Frances McDormand gave that speech I got a chance to really understand what it is and did my digging on it," he says.

"I realised I can implement that with my own production company and Warner Bros (the film studio behind Just Mercy) adopted that as well.

"To be able to let Just Mercy be the first film under my production company to use the inclusion rider, it was pretty powerful.

"We had people who have worked on their craft for 30-plus years and this is the first time they were able to be department heads.

"Strong women, strong people of colour, people from the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities, the whole nine, so the cast and crew was a reflection of the world that we live in and I thought it was a beautiful thing."

In the film, 32-year-old Jordan plays Stevenson, while Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian, who in 1987 was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite an abundance of evidence proving his innocence.

Foxx, who is already an Oscar winner for Ray, has been widely lauded for his performance, and has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, but was notably absent from this year's Bafta and Oscar nods.

Indeed, Bafta members nominated only white performers in the acting categories, while the Oscars nominated just one black star - Cynthia Erivo in Harriet, perhaps demonstrating why these riders are so crucial.

Foxx (52), is more circumspect.

"We do movies to get the stories out and anything else that comes, we welcome it but at the same time we are not looking to be upset.

"Those people that are nominated, we want to give them their moment. But we do feel that people feel for us, they wanted to see this go all the way and so you appreciate that.

"But we don't let that stop us getting the word out and continuing.

"I applaud this young man (Jordan) all the time, continuing to do movies that we can literally feed off of for a lifetime and that is what it's about."

And while this story took place in the 1980s, it still feels alarmingly modern.

Black men are still overwhelmingly over-represented at all stages of the criminal justice system, including on death row.

"This story took place over 30 years ago but it could have happened yesterday," Jordan says.

"So I think for me, having the platform that I have to be able to produce films and be able to tell stories, this is one that I felt was really important.

"There is a racial bias in the criminal justice system, so to be able to highlight that, to start those conversations again, and to be able to put that at the forefront of people's minds is extremely important.

"And to help try to change the perception of what it is to be black or brown, when guilt and danger and negativity is always associated with you and how you look. I think it's good to help try to change the narrative with films and powerful stories like this."

The film shines a light on the racism both men face as it details Stevenson's complex legal battle to have his client's conviction overturned as he becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political manoeuvrings that leave him afraid for his safety.

"This story is so important because it shows you what a black man goes through," Foxx says. "To be riding down the street, minding his own business, somebody takes you out of your car and says that you killed somebody in a city that you've never been in, someone you've never met, and it's so matter of fact.

"Even the people that did that remained in power after the case was overturned (Sheriff Tom Tate stayed in office until his retirement in 2018. After McMillian filed a civil lawsuit against him and other state and local officials, the US Supreme Court ruled against him, holding that a county sheriff could not be sued for monetary damages).

"That is why I applaud Michael B. Jordan for bringing us this movie, bringing us Bryan Stevenson.

"Watching the movie now with people in a theatre, I see people are clapping and cheering and crying, they are leaving with a sense of hope, so it really means a lot.

"Now lawyers are calling Bryan Stevenson, saying they want to come and work pro bono and help the situation.

"It's the most important movie that I've ever done."

  • Just Mercy is in cinemas now
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