Just Mercy is now in playing in theaters

bryan stevenson
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Michael B. Jordan plays a real-life superhero in his new film, Just Mercy.

Bryan Stevenson, whom the actor portrays, is a lawyer who for the past 31 years has worked tirelessly toward freeing wrongfully convicted inmates from death row and reforming the criminal justice system in America.

“We’re in this era of over-incarceration, where one in three black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison,” Stevenson, 60, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.

His bestselling 2014 memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is the basis for the inspirational film, which is courting Oscar buzz for Jordan’s costar in the film, Jamie Foxx.

Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan
Bryan Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan
| Credit: Matt Licari/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

The drama recounts the harrowing true story of how Stevenson worked to free Walter McMillian (played by Foxx), a wrongfully convicted woodcutter from Alabama who was sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman. He was found guilty despite six black witnesses who testified he was at a fish fry at the time of the murder. Many years later, after proving that the prosecution’s star witness had lied about McMillian on the stand, the lawyer had his conviction finally overturned in 1993, and he was cleared of all charges. McMillian later died in 2013.

Stevenson’s parents, Howard, a lab tech, and Alice, a bookkeeper, instilled in him a deep belief in education.

“I’d never met a lawyer until I got to Harvard Law School,” he says. “But I never doubted I could be one.”

Now Stevenson works at the nonprofit, Equal Justice Initiative, he founded in 1989, a human rights organization that provides legal services to people who have been wrongfully convicted or unfairly sentenced. Stevenson and his team’s work has resulted in reversals for more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.

Just Mercy is now in playing in theaters.