In the fall of 2016, incoming first-year students gathered in the Gentile Arena to hear a speech at their New Student Convocation. For the assigned first-year text, the university selected “Just Mercy,” the memoir of renowned lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who spoke to the new students about the themes of his book.
The book’s title might sound familiar to students paying attention to recent movie releases, as the memoir has been adapted for the big screen. “Just Mercy,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“The Glass Castle,” “Short Term 12”), tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who made it his life’s work to provide legal representation to those deemed irredeemable: inmates on death row.
Released Jan. 10, the film follows Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he joins local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) on a mission to provide legal counsel to death-row inmates in Alabama who were wrongfully convicted or went to trial without proper representation.
Loyola senior Rebecca Lachman, 22, read the book as an incoming first-year student. She said Stevenson’s memoir “forces you to look at where your privileges are in society.”
She said Stevenson’s work connects to Loyola’s Jesuit values because it “gives attention to people who are forgotten about within our society,” which reflects the university’s mission to help the underserved.
The film treats its characters with the same dignity and compassion Stevenson displayed toward the clients in his memoir. Even when Stevenson is racially profiled and forced to subject to a strip-search while visiting a client in prison, the camera stays on his face. Instead of revelling in the humiliation and indignity of the act for maximum shock-value, the film focuses on the way Stevenson maintains his composure despite the vulnerability, pain and anger he feels.
Elizabeth Webster, a professor in the department of criminal justice and criminology, said she was moved when she heard Stevenson speak at a conference for the American Society of Criminology in 2015. She said there was “not a dry eye in the house afterwards.”
She recounted how Stevenson encouraged criminologists not to forget their “responsibilities to work for meaningful change,” which ties into Loyola’s commitment to social justice.
Webster said she’s quite familiar with Stevenson’s work, having first heard of him several years ago when she worked with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that aims to exonerate people who were wrongfully convicted. She used his book while teaching a class at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey. She said the stories of Stevenson’s clients resonated with the inmates she worked with, because they personally understood the “inhumanity of incarceration.”
Webster also said the book “fits in perfectly” with Loyola’s mission and that Stevenson is a “giant” in the movement for juvenile justice.
Recent Loyola graduate Bryn Siberski, who read the memoir as an incoming first-year, said she “thought it was very powerful,” and that she learned a lot about how the death penalty impacts people on the margins of society.
“I didn’t even realize that it was illegal to execute people under the age of 18 before I read the book,” the 22-year-old business management major said.
Empathy and human connection are powerful parts of Stevenson’s story, both on the page and on the big screen. Lachman said reading the book and hearing Stevenson speak inspired her to change her major from education to criminal justice and social work. She said she cried when he spoke at convocation.
“He is one of my personal heroes after reading the book,” Lachman said.
“Just Mercy,” rated PG-13, is playing in theaters nationwide.