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‘Just Mercy’ shows that Atticus Finch was fiction, but Bryan Stevenson is real

Movie tells the story of the founding of Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative

This article contains spoilers.

If there’s one thing to take away from Just Mercy, the film that tells the story of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, it’s this: Atticus Finch was made up. Bryan Stevenson, on the other hand, is quite real.

Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The movie, based on a novel by Harper Lee, came out in 1962, and Peck won in 1963, a year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and his performance as a level-headed champion of common sense and decency became the most well-known of his career. For decades, it remained a testament to angelic white anti-racism and trust in the law. Atticus’ closing courtroom argument in the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape, remains a staple in the history of American cinema.

Well, guess what: It’s 2020. Atticus turned out to be a Klan meeting-attending, condescending, NAACP-despising, fire-breathing racist, according to Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

Michael B. Jordan (left) and Bryan Stevenson (right) attend the Just Mercy screening in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 20, 2019.

Photo by Prince Williams/Getty Images for Warner Bros

But now we have Bryan Stevenson, a real-life African American exemplar of the power of law to combat racism and a new movie treatment about his life. If only he didn’t have to constantly confront the presence of the fictional Finch.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and adapted from Stevenson’s memoir of the same name by Andrew Lanham, Just Mercy follows Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as a young, ambitious attorney fresh out of Harvard Law. He moves to Alabama and, with the aid of federal grant money, sets up a shop that eventually becomes the Equal Justice Initiative. That nonprofit is dedicated to providing legal services for impoverished and disenfranchised people — most of them black — who were failed by the legal system and sentenced to death row.

The film focuses on one harrowing case in particular, that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who was imprisoned on death row in Alabama before he’d even stood trial, thanks to the bigoted Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding). McMillian’s only crime was having a consensual affair with a white woman and owning a successful wood-pulping business, which granted him a level of agency that grated on his fellow white citizens. When a white woman turns up dead, McMillian is framed for her murder. Sheriff Tate’s name in the movie is a nod to the fictive sheriff Heck Tate of Maycomb, Alabama, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee based the made-up Maycomb on the real Alabama town of Monroeville, where much of Just Mercy takes place.

But now we have Bryan Stevenson, a real-life African American exemplar of the power of law to combat racism and a new movie treatment about his life. If only he didn’t have to constantly confront the presence of the fictional (Atticus) Finch.

Before Just Mercy turns deathly serious, the fact that Finch is knocking around Monroeville like a ghost Stevenson can’t shake is treated as a running joke. Here is a live, flesh-and-blood lawyer who has dedicated his life to freeing innocents from the electric chair. And yet every time Stevenson makes a stop at an Alabama legal institution, he gets asked about the story of a made-up white man: Have you been to the Mockingbird Museum? You know you can go to the courthouse where Atticus Finch made his speech, walk around and everything. (In reality, the scene was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage, although the local courthouse was used as a model.)

When Stevenson is leaving the office of prosecutor Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), after paying a visit on behalf of a wrongly-convicted black client, Chapman’s secretary pipes up. Her directive comes in a cunning package of comic earnestness and syrupy inhospitality: “You’ll want to check out the Mockingbird museum on your way out of town. It’s one of the great civil rights landmarks of the South.”

That movie dialogue doesn’t stray from reality. In the spring of 2018, the real Bryan Stevenson opened a memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration are landmarks to truth, justice, and reconciliation. But in opening them, Stevenson stirred up something else, something U.S. Rep. John Lewis calls “good trouble.”

A report in The Guardian described how white Alabamians were responding to the opening of the memorial and museum:

Some locals quietly seethed, saying they resented the new museum for dredging up the past and feared it would incite anger and backlash within black communities.

“It’s going to cause an uproar and open old wounds,” said Mikki Keenan, a 58-year-old longtime Montgomery resident, who was eating lunch at a southern country-style restaurant a mile from the memorial. Local residents, she said, feel “it’s a waste of money, a waste of space and it’s bringing up bulls—”.

“It keeps putting the emphasis on discrimination and cruelty,” chimed in her friend, who asked not to be named for fear that her child would disapprove of her remarks. The memorial, she added, could spark violence.

Just as Stevenson’s projects expose the fiction behind the Mockingbird museum, Just Mercy counters a continuum of cinema history, cutting down to size the mythical white saviors of To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, and a host of other films with the hard, tedious, dangerous work of a black attorney from Delaware. The stakes are life and death, not just for Stevenson’s clients, but for him, too. At the beginning of the film, when Stevenson is loading up his hooptie for his move to Alabama, his mother’s face is drawn with worry.

“I’m the one who has to deal with your funeral arrangements if you get killed down there,” she tells him.

Just Mercy is fairly conventional Oscar-bait. It owes most of its emotional resonance to two shattering supporting performances from Tim Blake Nelson, who plays a perjuring convict, and Rob Morgan, who plays a death row inmate. But the movie’s significance to the story of America, though, should not be overlooked. Writing for The New Yorker in 2018, Casey Cep remarked that To Kill a Mockingbird is “a kind of secular scripture, one of only a handful of texts most Americans have in common.” As such, Atticus Finch has taken up a sticky residence in the white imagination, and few are willing to evict him, even when the woman who created him has provided good reason to do so.

Perhaps Just Mercy can provide a push.

By supplanting the white savior myth of Atticus Finch with the story of a real-life American hero, Just Mercy offers up a powerful reminder in a time when hope can feel as though it’s in short supply: Not only are we capable of saving ourselves, we’ve already been doing the work.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.