“Just Mercy,” a righteous appeal to fix America’s broken criminal justice system, has a marketing tagline that could win an Oscar all by itself.
“This is about all of us.”
Of course, the movie still has to deliver the goods, and “Just Mercy,” which premiered Friday night to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, makes good on its promise. The sturdy legal drama, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, is a true-story crowd-pleaser that appeals to audiences’ hearts and minds, unlocking a sense of moral outrage in the process.
In other words, it’s a strong bet that it’ll be embraced by Oscar voters come January.
Jordan plays attorney Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard Law School grad who sets up shop in Alabama to defend inmates sentenced to death. Stevenson forms a close, familial bond with his clients, including Walter McMillian (Foxx), a death row inmate convicted of murdering an 18-year-old woman despite the complete lack of evidence or eyewitnesses.
The real-life Bryan Stevenson, on whose memoir the film is based, is the 59-year-old director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organzation that provides legal representation to the poor and unjustly accused, and he has as much charisma and star power as the movie’s lead actors.
“He’s out doing the real work,” says Jordan, a producer on the movie who convinced Stevenson to grant him the rights to his story. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, calls Stevenson a “genius of empathy.”
Speaking to the audience at the packed Roy Thomson Hall, the festival’s largest venue, Stevenson said: “I hope this movie inspires you to do more. We can change things.”
Oscar best picture slates are typically a sampler. And with wrenching movies like “Marriage Story” and, possibly, “Joker” and “The Irishman” circling for spots (not to mention “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” which ends with the Manson killers springing into action), there’s room at the table for an uplifting, socially conscious film like “Just Mercy.”
By embracing the movie, voters, by extension, recognize the worth of Stevenson’s fight for justice.
There are complicating factors. The film doesn’t open until a limited Christmas release, meaning Warner Bros. will need to screen it early and often and entice voters to give it a look. (It will expand nationally on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King weekend.)
Jordan leaves Toronto to begin shooting the spy-thriller “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse,” effectively removing him from the promotional trail for the most part until next year. With the Oscars two weeks earlier this season, the timing could matter.
The fall film festivals are over, leaving us with many great films but few clear front-runners in an awards season still in flux.
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This too: The movie’s strongest awards assets are its actors — Jordan, Foxx and the excellent Rob Morgan, who delivers an achingly effective turn as another one of Stevenson’s death row clients. But both the lead and supporting actor categories this year are stuffed to the brim, meaning many worthy performances won’t make the cut.
Of the group, Foxx has the best chance, as he plays against type in a raw, vulnerable performance. Oscar-winner Brie Larson has a role in the film as well, playing Stevenson’s assistant, but the part is likely too small for her to be considered by voters.
The best picture hopes of “Just Mercy” may ultimately rest on whether it can pull in a nomination for adapted screenplay. Then again, the movie’s existence and its already potent reception, could be victory enough for its real-life subject.
“I just want people to see what I’ve seen for 35 years,” Stevenson says, “namely, the humanity of these people on full display.”