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How the ‘Just Mercy’ Hair and Makeup Team Captured the Nuances of Prison Life

Developing hair and make up looks for the film “Just Mercy” involved extensive research. The movie is based on the 2014 memoir by Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Michael B. Jordan plays attorney Stevenson who defends Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man on death row, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

Hair department heads Andrea Mona Bowman and Emmy-winner Lawrence Davis ensured the actors’ looks were accurate for the early 1990s period and representative of their real-life counterparts.

When we first meet him, Walter sports a full head of hair. “In the Alabama South, guys [were] wearing a mullet back then,” says Bowman. “It was an Afro-type of mullet because the sides were short, the top had a little hair at the top and it was a little bit longer in the back.” Trends that would have been current in New York wouldn’t have been as prevalent in the South, she notes.

Makeup department head Patrice Coleman echoes the sentiment. She had to research everything from makeup styling trends to textures, colors, tones and even placement.

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An element as seemingly innocuous as foundation speaks to the timeframe. “There are periods when matte foundation is in style versus dewier foundation or, now, [the use of] a lot of highlighting,” says Coleman. Eyebrow trends, too, matter as they change throughout the years. These are all subtle yet meaningful distinctions of which both departments had to be aware.

Coleman looked at makeup tones, especially for the women. “For many years there were certain colors that black women just would not wear because it was not considered acceptable or flattering,” she explains.

The options that would have been available for Stevenson’s assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) wouldn’t have been the same as for the African American women of Walter’s family and neighborhood. Coleman had to take all of that into consideration when developing her color palette.

The looks of the death row inmates weren’t always intuitive, either. Men typically didn’t have long hair or bushy beards. By the time their execution date drew near, they would have their hair shaved and removed.

The length of Walter’s hair, while he’s on death row, is an education in nuance. His hair gets slightly longer as time passes, a characteristic based on videos of the real-life McMillian. “You can tell that he let his hair grow out a little more,” says Bowman. “I don’t know if he couldn’t have access [to a barber] because he was locked up on death row or if it was just a personal choice.” The look and shape remain the same even with the additional growth.

As McMillian’s time on death row wore on, Coleman used makeup to help accentuate his stress and fatigue. But, it’s not as simple as adding some under-eye circles. “You determine what the person has gone through with their mental, emotional [and] physical state,” she explains. “You [consider] their bone structure and how they naturally would manifest those physical traits or how things would change for them. You use your imagination and research.”

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