Perhaps the best way to understand Scott Budnick’s unconventional path is to picture it as a Venn diagram, with one circle marked “Hollywood,” a second labeled “criminal justice reform”—and the new film Just Mercy situated right in the middle, where they overlap.
Just Mercy, which is being distributed by Warner Bros. and opens today across the country, is meant to be more than a movie. Thanks largely to Budnick, it is being positioned as a catalyst for Americans to rethink how we treat those who’ve been accused and convicted of committing crimes.
“We want policy change,” says Budnick, who is one of Just Mercy‘s executive producers. “But we also want overall heart and mind change.”
To try to make this happen, Budnick’s company, One Community, and a sister nonprofit that he launched, Good Films Impact, have big plans beyond the big screen. They have put together a $10 million social-action campaign, dubbed Represent Justice, that springs off of Just Mercy and features an ambitious slate of programming, much of it in partnership with activist groups nationwide.
Just Mercy chronicles the early struggles and eventual triumphs of Bryan Stevenson, a renowned public interest attorney who in 1989 founded the Equal Justice Initiative. He and his colleagues have won landmark legal challenges exonerating innocent death-row prisoners, eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.
Based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of the same name, Just Mercy centers on his crusade to clear Walter McMillian, a black man charged with murdering an 18-year-old white woman in a small town in Alabama. McMillian was freed in 1993, after six years on death row, when prosecutors finally conceded that he’d been the victim of perjured testimony and evidence improperly withheld.
It isn’t the only storyline, however. Also depicted is Herbert Richardson, another Stevenson client, who couldn’t escape the electric chair. There was no doubt that Richardson killed the 11-year-old niece of his ex-girlfriend when a pipe bomb that he’d made exploded on the woman’s front porch. But Richardson was a Vietnam veteran suffering from severe mental illness, and he was genuinely repentant for what had occurred—all while maintaining that he’d never set out to hurt anyone. Though grayer than McMillian’s case, this part of the narrative is just as powerful in laying bare numerous problems with the criminal justice system. It also helps to convey what Stevenson has called a “vital lesson” that he has learned over the years: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
From playing a part to doing their part
For the actors in Just Mercy, being in a film with a mission that transcends generating box-office receipts has provided a chance to go from playing a part to doing their part.
“I felt a huge responsibility to run towards this issue, to run towards the story,” says Michael B. Jordan, who has won rave reviews for his portrayal of Stevenson and leads a cast that includes Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. “I hoped that would ultimately give Bryan a tool, something to help him do his job.
“There is still a shocking rate of error in a broken judicial system,” Jordan adds. “Walter McMillan’s story is still happening today. Through the work of real-life heroes like Bryan and bringing a story like this to the masses, I am hopeful that there will be a sea change.”
Some of what the Represent Justice campaign is coordinating, such as conference appearances and special screenings of Just Mercy for elected officials, is designed to heighten awareness of the tremendous damage that invariably arises when a society “sends people to prison as a first response instead of a last resort,” as Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown University law professor who himself served time for bank robbery, has put it.
Other Represent Justice events—including exhibits showcasing art from inmates, basketball games with NBA players coaching incarcerated individuals, and a concert by Common at the California Rehabilitation Center—are seeking to give voice and a sense of dignity to those who aren’t generally afforded much of either.
Of course, Just Mercy isn’t the first film to follow such a script. Documentarians eager to promote a cause have long connected their creations with allied organizations. And Participant Media touts its own dedication to “entertainment that inspires audiences to engage in positive social change.” The company, which coproduced Just Mercy, has been making movies with “socially relevant themes” since 2004.
The formula can be quite effective. The Norman Lear Center at USC, which studies the social, political, economic, and cultural impact of entertainment, has found that socially minded movies can increase people’s knowledge, shape their attitudes, and even alter their behavior.
“They can indeed make a difference,” says Marty Kaplan, the center’s director.
What sets Just Mercy apart is having A-list talent essentially fronting an eight-figure advocacy campaign. By all accounts, that budget—funded by major corporate and private foundations and individual donors—is extraordinary. “It’s way different by scale,” says Heidi Nel, the executive director of Good Films Impact.
For the 43-year-old Budnick, Just Mercy is the culmination—at least so far—of not one career but two.
As a movie producer, Budnick scored big hits with the 2009 comedy The Hangover and its two sequels. Later, having volunteered to teach writing at a juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles, he decided to turn the bulk of his attention elsewhere: to helping those who may have made a terrible mistake in their youth rebuild their lives.
“These are human beings,” Budnick says. “Do we believe that someone who committed a crime at 14 or 15 years old doesn’t have the ability for redemption?”
In 2013, Budnick started the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which offers rehabilitative services inside prison; makes available for those who’ve been let out education and job training, employment, housing, counseling, and peer-to-peer mentoring; and has successfully pushed for legislation in California that, among other things, eased sentences of life without parole for juveniles.
Budnick began a third act of sorts in 2018 with One Community. To date, the company has raised $50 million to finance a slate of movies and television shows that, Budnick promises, will tackle all kinds of subjects falling under “the umbrella of inequality”—poverty, immigration, racism, gender discrimination, and more.
Budnick’s heart and soul
Still, it’s no coincidence that the first film out of the gate for Budnick’s new venture zeroes in on the failings of the justice system. “This is his heart and soul,” notes Sonya Lockett, One Community’s chief impact officer.
One Community’s financial backers—Live Nation Entertainment CEO Michael Rapino, Endeavor Content, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, and Starwood Capital CEO Barry Sternlicht, among them—are obviously looking for a strong return. But Budnick insists that they have a grander aim with One Community: “to use storytelling to make an impact on the world.”
“This is not going to be their Uber, Twitter, or Instagram investment,” he says.
Just how substantial an impact a film can have often depends on whether the strategy behind it is well-honed. “Are you trying to activate your base?” asks the Norman Lear Center’s Kaplan. “Are you trying to convert people who disagree? Or are you trying to move those who are persuadable?”
With $10 million to deploy, Represent Justice may well have the opportunity to go after all three.
To gauge how far it gets, the campaign will regularly monitor social media, as well as field a poll and conduct surveys to measure the public’s grasp of concerns reflected in the film, test messaging intended to boost support for reforms, and assess the influence of various activities. It will also sponsor research by Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt to determine whether Just Mercy can actually affect people’s neural responses and make them more empathetic toward those who’ve been incarcerated.
“I hope the film encourages everyone who sees it to redouble our efforts to dismantle structural racism where it exists, and make sure our criminal justice system lives up to our constitutional values,” says Oregon Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat who last summer signed into law a bill that reversed “tough-on-crime” sentencing requirements for young offenders. She was shown Just Mercy last month.
Holly Mitchell, a Democratic state senator in California, is well acquainted with the myriad shortcomings of the criminal-justice system, having coauthored a package of reform bills. Still, she says, Just Mercy is a potent reminder of “who I am and why I do what I do.”
“It sadly confirmed for me what I knew to be true,” says Mitchell, who watched the movie just before Christmas, “but it gave me deeper resolve.”
Just Mercy—which arrives in theaters alongside another death-row saga Clemency—comes as the prospect of overhauling the criminal-justice system has emerged as an absolute rarity: an idea that finds considerable agreement across the political and ideological divide. President Donald Trump embraced reforms, as did President Barack Obama. So, too, have the liberal billionaire George Soros and the conservative billionaire Charles Koch.
Convening a brain trust
The architects of Represent Justice wasted no time in harnessing this strange-bedfellows moment. In the fall of 2018—with Just Mercy still more than a year away from release—Budnick and his staff held “brain trust” meetings in L.A. and New York with dozens of reform proponents of all stripes.
“We were really listening to those doing the work on the ground,” says Lockett. “Our whole approach was to get them engaged from the beginning.”
This collaborative spirit hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Represent Justice is trying to take what we’re already doing and amplify it,” says Jennie Sheeks, director of development and communications for Witness to Innocence, which mobilizes a network of exonerated death-row survivors to press for the end of capital punishment in the United States.
For example, the campaign assisted Sheeks in drawing attention to the plight of James Dailey, a 73-year-old Florida man who is facing execution for a 1985 murder that, many are convinced in light of evidence that has surfaced, he didn’t commit. Going forward, Witness to Innocence expects to arrange for showings of Just Mercy to rally people behind its bid to abolish the death penalty. The goal would be for exonerees to then lead a discussion around the film while suggesting specific calls to action, such as lobbying state lawmakers and governors.
“We want to get our members out there talking to more people and opening more eyes,” Sheeks says. “You can forget a statistic, but you can’t forget those stories.”
Rob Smith, executive director of the Justice Collaborative, which is attempting to fix what it describes as a “deeply flawed criminal justice system,” wants to leverage Just Mercy in several ways. One is to present it to more governors to help them realize that most people who are guilty of a crime have the capacity “to grow and change” and should be candidates for commuted sentences. Another is to prompt journalists to devote more coverage to commutation, parole, and clemency—and hold politicians accountable when they don’t exercise their power to grant them. And the third is to use the film to spark a conversation with prosecutors.
“Prosecutors are so focused on who they’re putting into prison,” Smith says. “We want them to also focus on who they can bring home.”
Not that any of this will be easy. Politicians who award clemency risk being greeted by an enormous backlash.
“Any governor who takes a step forward to show mercy can get savaged,” says David Safavian, general counsel of the American Conservative Union, which is working with Represent Justice in a number of state capitals. “The voices of retribution are always ready to attack.”
For all of the momentum that criminal justice reform has enjoyed over the past five or six years, Safavian worries that “we’re starting to see a pushback.” Given this, he considers Just Mercy to be an important “refresher course” for “the average citizen” about the extensive repairs that the system still needs. “The timing couldn’t be any better,” he says.
Meanwhile, the current machinery of criminal justice remains firmly in place, with some 2.2 million people inside America’s prisons and jails—a 500% surge over the past four decades. Although reforms have reduced the incarceration rate over the past 10 years, experts say, the decline has been modest.
“It’s an issue that involves victims,” Budnick says. “It involves pain. Justice needs to balance accountability with the knowledge that people are not only the worst decision they ever made. It’s definitely tricky.”
At least sometimes, though, it can seem pretty simple. Following a showing of Just Mercy in downtown Los Angeles in December, those on a panel championing criminal-justice reform talked about how the film had touched them. “This is more than just a movie,” Jarrett Harper, a Represent Justice campaign ambassador, told the crowd. “It taps into the depths of my soul.”
Harper was sentenced to life without parole when he was 17, after robbing and murdering a man who had sexually abused him. In 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence, citing his age at the time of the crime, “his sincere remorse, and his commitment to rehabilitation.”
Harper urged those in attendance to “get up and do something”—to speak out against mass incarceration and in favor of more drug treatment and other types of care, to vote into office those who share Just Mercy’s moral vision and out of office those who don’t.
“It’s up to all of us to make sure this film succeeds,” said Patrisse Cullors, the cofounder of Black Lives Matter.
It was just as Budnick had conceived it: You walk in to see a movie; you walk out to seed a movement.