Growing up in Bangor, Hollywood screenwriter Andrew Lanham would sometimes watch courtroom movies with his father, the respected Bangor attorney Samuel Lanham.
The elder Lanham, who died in 2013 at the age of 61, would voice his disapproval of the liberties filmmakers would sometimes take with courtroom scenes — lawyerly outbursts, ridiculous lines of questioning, other totally unrealistic occurrences.
So when Andrew Lanham and his longtime collaborator, director and screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton, were working on adapting lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s acclaimed 2014 nonfiction book “Just Mercy,” he had his father’s approval always in the back of his mind.
“I can vividly remember sitting through courtroom movies with my dad growing up, and he would always grumble and groan throughout all of the inaccurate ‘movie moments,’” said Lanham, 35, a 2003 graduate of Bangor Christian School. “I like to think that, through Bryan’s guidance, there are less moments that my father would complain about afterwards than in a typical courtroom movie, if he were still alive.”
In “Just Mercy,” directed by Cretton and in theaters nationwide beginning Jan. 10, Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson, and tells the story of his remarkable legal career spent defending wrongfully accused people and those denied proper representation. The film particularly focuses on his defense — alongside local lawyer Eva Ainsley (Brie Larson) — of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), an Alabama man accused of murder despite the preponderance of evidence that points to his innocence.
For Lanham, adapting a work of nonfiction required him to put aside his screenwriting intuition to bring his personal voice to the work, and instead help to bring to life Stevenson’s experience defending marginalized people, particularly African Americans in the southern U.S.
Lanham and Cretton worked closely with Stevenson to adapt his story to film. The film, which received its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, has already received a number of positive reviews from critics, with a 79 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and with the National Board of Review awarding it its Freedom of Expression Award.
“Bryan really acts as a conduit in the book in order to paint a picture of our justice system as a whole. Our hope was that the film could attempt to do the same,” Lanham said. “Above all, the goal was to try and capture the same hope and grace that Bryan fills his life and work with, through the narrative.”
“Just Mercy” is Lanham’s fourth produced screenplay, and his third co-written with Cretton, with whom he also co-wrote 2017’s “The Shack” and “The Glass Castle,” the latter an adaptation of Jeannette Wall’s bestselling book. Lanham, a graduate of the University of Texas Austin’s film program, got his screenwriting start back in 2010, when he won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting for his script, “The Jumper of Maine,” a short film about a paramedic with Tourette’s syndrome, which Lanham also has.
Lanham recently finished adapting the young adult book “The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik” by David Arnold into a screenplay, which presently is being developed by Paramount Players.
Though Lanham stops short of calling Cretton his screenwriting partner, he does relish the opportunity to work with him.
“Destin is one of my closest friends, which was the case before we ever started working on projects together,” Lanham said. “My dream was always to work closely with directors in the development and writing process, so being able to do that with someone who is also a close friend is really special for me.”
“Just Mercy” starts at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville on Jan. 10. Check your local listings for other Maine screenings.