How Period and Real-Life Subjects Informed Costume Designs for ‘Just Mercy’

When Francine Jamison-Tanchuck signed on as the costume designer for “Just Mercy,” the true story of defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) and his fight to overturn the murder conviction of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), she was drawn to the prospect of depicting real-life characters through her work. 

“It can sometimes be more challenging than anything coming out of your imagination,” says Jamison-Tanchuck, whose early credits include “The Color Purple,” “Glory” and, more recently, “The Birth of a Nation” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” After reading the “Just Mercy” script, the veteran costume designer was driven by the idea of illustrating not only the time period of 1987 to 1992 in small-town Alabama, where the film takes place, but also “a beautiful family that was going through this horrendous time in their lives.”

For resources, Jamison-Tanchuck turned to photographs provided by both McMillian’s family and Stevenson. The attorney’s bestselling memoir (upon which the film is based) also served up a wealth of information, as did their conversations and her own extensive research online and at the Western Costume Research Library in Los Angeles.

With the help of assistant costume designer Joy Cretton (sister of the film’s director, Destin Daniel Cretton), Jamison-Tanchuck set about re-creating historically accurate looks for each character, with a nod to their personal journeys.

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Most notably, that included the shockingly white prison uniforms (which, in Alabama, also featured black belts, much to Jamison-Tanchuck’s surprise). For Foxx, it was key that his character’s uniform always appeared perfectly pressed and pristine, since McMillian would use the small allowance provided by his family to pay people in the laundry room to iron his shirts. Even on death row, “he wanted people to see they weren’t breaking him from being a human being,” the designer says. “Bryan Stevenson, who visited him constantly, said that yes, he really looked like that — and so did the other people on death row as well.”

McMillian’s sense of self-respect is also on display in the final courtroom scene when the verdict is handed down. Here, he wears his own three-piece black suit, provided by his family, with no tie. “His wife, Minnie, wanted him to look his best,” Jamison-Tanchuck explains. The designer replicated the suit for Foxx, using family photographs as a guide. 

The director and Jamison-Tanchuck agreed that each member of McMillian’s family and the community at large who was portrayed on screen, speaking part or not, should be individually fitted. “Destin wanted them to be so important for support. I wanted them to have their own characters,” she says. “I really wanted it to be something very real.”

Similarly, the costume designer also set about re-creating Stevenson’s wardrobe, which included just one suit when he first met McMillian (“And even that was getting threadbare,” she says). “Bryan Stevenson wanted it to be really known it wasn’t about clothing with him,” she explains. “Keeping him in the same suit and changing the tie and shirt was something Destin, Michael B. and I agreed to do to show this guy is not about the money. He’s about righting the wrong.” 

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