INTERVIEW: Spelman grad Karan Kendrick plays the wife of the falsely accused in Jamie Foxx’s ‘Just Mercy’


Originally posted Saturday, January 11, 2020 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

"Just Mercy," opening wide this weekend, is set about 30 years ago in the heart of Alabama where a black man Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is falsely convicted and placed on death row for the murder of a white women.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) arrives in town as a well-educated black attorney seeking justice in a case that is screaming for justice. Spelman College grad and actress Karan Kendrick plays a small but crucial role as McMillian's wife Minnie.

In a pivotal scene with the attorney visiting her home for the first time, Stevenson assures her that he will be on her side - at no cost. Despite skepticism among some of her family members and friends who are disappointed by past attorneys, Minnie senses Stevenson’s commitment. She gives him a chance to help her husband.

“Minnie chooses to love, not as an emotion or a feeling but as a choice,” said Kendrick, a Georgia native whose first professional credit was “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” “She follows that choice of walking this journey with her husband.”


Credit: Jake Netter

Credit: Jake Netter

Kendrick loved that scene where family, neighbors and friends are packed into Minnie’s small dining room eagerly  offering Stephenson sweet tea.

“This displays a very common African-American truth,” she said. “This shows what community means for us. You never journey alone. We’re all in this together. That’s what Minnie has. We’re going to love Walter through this. It’s beautiful sharing.”

And while she was familiar with Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative going into “Just Mercy,” she didn’t realize the body of his work over the decades. “He liked to say that his head may get bloodied but never bowed. Just look at his incredible persistence and consistency over the decades. He leads with such grace.”

To her, “he’s a real-life super hero. He actually saves lives.”

Given her character, her friends would ask her if she got to kiss Foxx. She didn’t. Foxx’s character spends most of the film in prison so her direct interactions with him are limited.

The film also humanizes characters that don't necessarily lend themselves to such nuance, including a guilty man on death row (played with emotional resonance by Rob Morgan) and the man who falsely accused McMillian of the crime (Tim Blake Nelson).

The film “encourages us to look through a different lens of comparison and understanding versus a lens of judgment,” she said.

“When people see the film, they want to know what they can do to help,” Kendrick added. “That speaks to the power of the story. You watch and you’re changed. You cannot walk away the same way as you walked in. Your universe of responsibility expands.”

The film is indeed being received well, with a top-notch CinemaScore of A-plus from opening weekend audiences and an 82 percent positive rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It will likely open with about $11 million in box office gross, good for a top five finish.

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