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In Brie Larson’s latest cinematic role, she transforms herself into a tireless advocate championing for the release of a man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row in “Just Mercy.”
But is Larson’s character in the film based on a real person?
Yes. Larson’s character is modeled after the real-life crusader Eva Ansley, who helped found the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 with Bryan Stevenson—portrayed in the film by Michael B. Jordan.
Together the pair worked to exonerate Walter McMillian, an African-American man convicted of killing a white teenage girl at an Alabama cleaners despite numerous witnesses who told police McMillian had been at a church fish fry at the time of the murder.
McMillian’s plight and the fight for justice is at the heart of “Just Mercy,” but Ansley has devoted herself to helping find and coordinate legal services for the poor and those on death row for more than 30 years, according to a profile of her on the Equal Justice Initiative’s website.
Ansley is not an attorney herself, but decided as a young mother years ago that she wanted to help match lawyers with death row prisoners.
“This is not somebody who is a lawyer,” Larson told Variety. “This is a mom who noticed something that was happening in her community, and nothing was going to stop her from rectifying the situation in whatever way she could.”
She joined forces with Stevenson in 1989 to open a new nonprofit law center in Tuscaloosa. The goal of the law center was to provide free, quality legal services to those condemned to death row in the state, according to Stevenson’s 2014 memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”
But they soon ran into challenges and were unable to secure funding from the state legislature or find quality lawyers willing to work for the low salary they could offer.
Undeterred, Ansley and Stevenson moved the law center to Montgomery and created what would ultimately become the Equal Justice Initiative.
“Eva took on administrative duties for our new project, which were pretty challenging given that federal dollars came with all kinds of complex reporting and accounting requirements,” Stevenson wrote. “Eva was fearless and smart, and she sorted everything out so that a few dollars could trickle in.”
Three decades later, Ansley remains the operations director for the Equal Justice Initiative.
She and Stevenson even visited the set of “Just Mercy” and worked closely with the actors who portrayed them onscreen.
Larson believes what makes Ansley’s advocacy efforts unique is her focus on the “micro.”
“How can you be decent to every single person you encounter? It starts with you, and then it’s just a one-foot radius around you,” she told Variety.
While accepting an award at Variety’s Power of Women luncheon, Larson also spoke to Ansley’s continued perseverance and commitment to social justice.
"When I was prepping for the film, I asked Eva how she keeps going in the face of so much working against her, and she said, 'If all I can do is bring a little hope to someone, that's enough. No one needs to feel alone,'" she said, according to CNN. "I've been chewing that sentiment for a year now, and here's what I've begun to practice with that: Every interaction is a chance to bring hope."
“Just Mercy” is now playing in theaters.
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