Social Action Campaign for 'Just Mercy' Evolves Into Criminal Justice Organization (Exclusive)

Sam Lewis, executive director of ARC and producer Scott Budnick at a Play for Justice event with the Sacramento Kings at Folsom State Prison.
Ricky Horne Jr. for Represent Justice

Sam Lewis, executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (left), and Just Mercy executive producer Scott Budnick at a Play for Justice event with the Sacramento Kings at Folsom State Prison.

Part of the release of the Michael B. Jordan-starring film last year, Represent Justice has grown from an advocacy campaign to a fully fledged nonprofit working to reform the criminal justice system.

When the film Just Mercy came out late last year — it stars Michael B. Jordan as civil-rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson working to free a wrongly convicted death row prisoner — the team behind it launched what many movies that tackle pressing issues do these days. They mounted an accompanying campaign that both promoted the movie and amplified its message.

Titled Represent Justice and launched last October, two months before the film's release, Just Mercy’s campaign worked to highlight the need for criminal justice reform in the United States. (The film was co-financed by producer Scott Budnick's One Community banner and released by Warner Bros.) Its activations included a concert by rapper Common at the California Rehabilitation Center; screenings of Just Mercy for governors around the country; and an initiative called Play for Justice, which engaged NBA players, including Kyle Kuzma, Caron Butler, Trevor Ariza and Giannis Antetokounmpo, in the fight for legislative reform.

“The campaign was really about creating public demand for change and raising awareness around the systemic inequality of the justice system, and we developed a lot of programming. We’re using stories as an advocacy tool,” says Daniel Forkkio, who lead the campaign for a part of its run. “We did nearly 500 screenings and forged a lot of partnerships with justice reform organizations. We brought [sports] players into facilities alongside policy makers to hear the stories of people who were inside, to bring them closer and more proximate, as Bryan Stevenson would say, to the issue.”

Most film campaigns fizzle out not long after a movie is released. But one year later, Represent Justice has evolved: its organizers tell The Hollywood Reporter exclusively that it has become a fully fledged criminal justice advocacy organization. “I haven’t seen it happen before,” says Budnick (Just Mercy's executive producer) of Represent Justice's trajectory from film advocacy campaign to nonprofit group. Adds April Grayson, a formerly incarcerated woman who serves as one of the ambassadors of the campaign-turned-organization, “Something that started out as, ‘We’re going to give this a shot and see what we can do around this movie’ has turned into, ‘We’re bringing on a director of policy’ and we’re going to keep expanding.”

Notably, Represent Justice puts justice-system-impacted individuals at the center of its work, with a speaker’s bureau — financially supported by the organization ­— that features Grayson and 15 other ambassadors around the U.S. “We have all of these surrogates, who had spent [years] in prison themselves,” says Budnick, “and they were all over the country talking to folks on panels, showing their own leadership and they just kept saying to us, ‘Why does this need to end?’” Adds Forkkio, who is now the CEO of Represent Justice, “One of our fundamental beliefs is that those who are most impacted by an issue are the ones whose stories need to be told.”

Grayson — who lives in Sacramento, California, and who is the statewide coordinator for the Young Women’s Freedom Center’s Sister Warrior’s Freedom Coalition, an advocacy group comprised of formerly and currently incarcerated women — says her experience with Represent Justice stands in stark contrast to many other groups that ask her to speak on criminal justice issues. “Most organizations exploit the people who are the most impacted,” says Grayson. She shares that she’s been asked to speak at political forums where “people give us a pizza and say, ‘You’re so great.’” By contrast, she says, “Represent Justice has been very giving in the way that they treat us and has created space for people just like myself to really highlight the issues that our system has, the way that it treats Black and brown people. People of color have had a raw deal for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’re still fighting a system that was created to not give us dignity.” Represent Justice has invested in media training for its speakers, and also, adds Grayson, provided therapy sessions, which can be especially critical for some ambassadors who can find that telling their stories of being part of the carceral system can feel like reliving them.

Budnick — who serves as a founding board member of the organization — says that Represent Justice also has stepped up to support nonprofits that its ambassadors work with. “Through the campaign, we were able to grant a couple million dollars to organizations that were working with us. A lot of folks that are doing films come to organizations and ask them to promote their film for free. We said, ‘If you are working with us on the issues around this campaign, then we want to be able to help increase the capacity of your organization. We did that monetarily. And we did that with our communications director helping organization increase their digital capacities. We want to empower the groups that know better than we do.”

Grayson’s organization, the Sister Warrior’s Freedom Coalition, has received three grants from Represent Justice, which started an emergency COVID-Relief Fund to support organizations helping people recently released from prison. “When COVID-19 hit, we were awarded a $50,000 grant to help start support networks throughout the community, as well as two smaller grants that allowed us to have funds on the ground for people coming home [from incarceration] who needed toilet paper or phone bills paid. I did a school supply drive for mothers who couldn’t afford school supplies for their kids,” says Grayson, who served over 17 years in California’s criminal justice system, most of it at the Central California Women’s Facility. She came home in 2015.

One of the key approaches for Represent Justice is that surrogates have been included all along at events such as film screenings for politicians — the film has been shown to district attorneys and attorneys general across the country as well as the governors of Oregon, Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. When the film was screened for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, recalls Budnick, “we had our Represent Justice surrogate Jarrett Harper there in the room. I got to say to the governor, ‘You released him from prison. You could see how impactful that was to the governor,” says Budnick, adding, “All of his commutation staff were sitting in the theater with us. Two weeks later, he started commuting his first batch of 20 people.” According to the Sacramento Bee, Newsom has granted a total of 42 pardons and 65 commutations since taking office.

Going forward, Represent Justice is continuing its Play for Justice initiative, which was active in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin; the shooting was met with a one-day sports strike by professional sports teams across the country.  According to Budnick, “We’re advising the Milwaukee Bucks players on political strategy in Wisconsin around issues of policing and criminal justice. Obviously, the shooting of Jacob Blake really shook them to their core,” he says, adding that players for the Bucks as well as the Sacramento Kings “have adopted criminal justice reform as the main pillar of their work in their communities.” The Represent Justice team works with players on ways to effectively leverage their platforms and community connections to push for change with district attorneys, state governments and parole boards.

The organization has also launched a voter tool kit, Free Our Vote, a guide to voting for — and by — people impacted by the justice system. In addition to offering information on voter rights and eligibility status, one of the goals is to encourage passage of laws that restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals. “Right now, I’m working with a coalition that is helping to pass [California] Proposition 17,” says Grayson, of a proposition on the ballot in the state this year that would allow individuals on parole to vote. “I feel like the thing that shows that the community has accepted them back is allowing them to have their voice matter when it comes to voting.”

In Oklahoma, Represent Justice is active with a campaign called Justice for Julius, an effort to free Julius Jones, a Black man on death row in the state, who it says is innocent. “We’ve been able to rally a lot of Oklahoma celebrities behind the case, including NBA stars who come from Oklahoma like Trae Young and Blake Griffin. They’ve written letters to the governor and the parole board,” says Budnick, adding, “I have to thank Kim Kardashian, who turned me on to his plight. Kim has been a hero in the fight for innocence and getting innocent people out of prison.”

The group also works to change the conversation when it comes to how the public and news organizations speak and write about people who have been in the criminal justice system. “We don’t use terms like inmates or felons — anything that sort of removes someone’s humanity by defining them as their worst act is what we stay away from,” says Forkkio. “If you compartmentalize a person that way, you remove your own obligation to think about them as an equal, as a person who’s worthy of empathy.” Represent Justice suggests using terms like “incarcerated individuals” or “people who are incarcerated.”

And the organization continues to screen Just Mercy. “I just got an email yesterday that both Democrats and Republicans in the Ohio legislature want to do screenings and want to do a panel afterwards around actual policies they are trying to pass this next legislative session,” says Budnick. “This isn’t a partisan issue. That’s what I’m excited about most. It’s an issue of humanity. It’s people from the left, right and center who share values of justice and mercy and grace and redemption.”