Toronto: 'Just Mercy' Wins Cheers, But Can It Win Awards?

Just Mercy Still 2 - MICHAEL B. JORDAN - JAMIE FOXX - Warner Bros. Pictures Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Just Mercy, a film about the heroic American lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson's early career and efforts to free innocent black men from death row, had its world premiere Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival in front of a packed Roy Thomson Hall. The fourth feature from the young writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, who co-adapted this one with Andrew Lanham from Stevenson's novel of the same name, played through the roof, thanks largely to a powerful story strongly brought to life by Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian, one of his clients.

The reality is that Just Mercy, which counts Jordan and Stevenson among its executive producers, is a somewhat glossy, on-the-nose, big-studio film, and is not nearly as polished or impressive as Cretton's 2013 indie Short Term 12, which introduced Brie Larson and a host of other terrific young talent to cinephiles. (Larson also starred in Cretton's 2017 film The Glass Castle, and plays a small role in this one as a member of Stevenson's support staff.) But it will get a much better release, and similarly appeals to audiences' emotions, which is why it cannot be counted out.

At the end of the day, the best awards bets for Just Mercy are probably two supporting actors who make the most of a number of big moments to shine in the 137-minute film: Foxx and, as another inmate sentenced to death row, Rob Morgan (who was even better this year in Joe Talbot's The Last Black Man in San Francisco). Jordan is very good, as always, but this time in a part that is probably too understated and noble to emerge from a crowded field of best actor contenders.