It was an especially rash move at the time and the arrival of young Bryan (Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan) is greeted with sly amusement by the District Attorney, Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) and by the guards at Holman prison, Yellow Mama’s home. But he grits his teeth and carries on, interviewing inmates and evaluating their chances until he eventually settles on Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a timber cutter who has been convicted of murdering an 18-year-old girl. Several of McMillian’s friends and family members could have shown that he was with them at the time of the crime. But that would have been possible only if the Kafkaesque conditions governing Alabama’s court system had allowed them to testify.
Stevenson was one of the film’s producers and its director, Hawaiian-born Destin Daniel Cretton, has fashioned a straightforward, if simplified, translation of his book, resisting any flourishes to concentrate on the facts, which is fair enough since they need no embellishment. But the script’s pared-down style does throw up one or two caricatures which don’t quite ring true. Chapman, for example, seems to have been a more conflicted character than Spall’s smirking performance allows. Yet truth did outdo pulp fiction when it came to other members of the state’s law enforcement establishment. From all accounts, the sheriff who took McMillian in was a petty tyrant, puffed-up by years of indulging his bigotry and getting away with it.
Jordan, however, is completely persuasive. The virtues possessed by Stevenson are all on the quiet side. His analytical flair is matched by his patience, his tenacity and his acuity. He knows when to act. He also knows when to hold back – qualities shared by Brie Larson’s Eva Ansley, who helps him run their organisation, the Equal Justice Initiative.
At the pulsing core of the story is death row, where McMillian is sustained by the friendship of his fellow inmates in the adjoining cells. They can’t see one another but the banter which passes between the bars and walls of their confinement keeps them going. Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, son of Ice Cube), who became another of Stevenson’s clients, is the joker – despite a false conviction which Stevenson took 16 years to have overturned. And Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran, who planted a bomb on a woman’s porch while suffering from post-traumatic shock syndrome, is an especially sad figure, tormented by the knowledge of his inevitable date with Yellow Mama. Maybe the script is too easy on him. We hear little about his victim and he seems more regretful than remorseful but Morgan gives him a reflectiveness that gets to you.
Foxx’s performance is as restrained as Jordan’s. He curbs the cockiness that often colours his work and portrays a man who can still spare a thought for the troubles of those around him while struggling not to be consumed by the deep-seated anger that he’s been harbouring since his arrest.
One source of black humour lies in the fact that McMillian is from Monroeville, home of Harper Lee. When Stevenson first arrives, people keep suggesting that a visit to the town’s museum, with its To Kill a Mockingbird exhibition, will give him an insight into the place. And they’re being serious.
Stevenson, however, has had the last word on that topic. He’s helped to set up two other Alabama museums as memorials to the history of slavery and the sufferings of African-Americans who have had to endure the wrongs perpetrated by the US’s criminal justice system. If you want to find out more, this film is the perfect place to begin.