If you’re looking for an early favorite for the audience award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, you might want to start with Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy,” an effectively straightforward and potent drama about racism and justice that had its world premiere at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday night.
Starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in the true story of a young Harvard-educated lawyer trying to free a man who was sent to Alabama’s death row for a crime he didn’t commit, “Just Mercy” is the kind of film that poses the question, “Is it OK to be preachy if you’re doing it for a very good cause?” The TIFF audience’s answer was a resounding yes, and it won’t be surprising if some awards voters agree.
Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, who came out of law school driven to right the injustices visited on poor communities — and he went to the right place when he set up shop in Alabama and began representing death-row inmates. His biggest case turns out to be Walter McMillian, framed for the murder of a young white woman with the help of two compromised witnesses and no physical evidence.
Stevenson, of course, learns about the difficulties in fighting racial injustice in the Deep South, from the strip search he endures when he first tries to visit prison clients, to bomb threats and late-night traffic stops at the hands of cops with their guns drawn.
Jordan communicates volumes with glances and grunts, but he’s also playing a man who loves to deliver statements of purpose: Stevenson gives big speeches in court but also in the office and in the car and across the dining-room table. It’s a bit much sometimes, though a pre-screening speech from the real-life Stevenson suggests that it’s probably pretty accurate, too.
Foxx has less to say, because McMillian has been beaten down to the point where he initially thinks the young lawyer is wasting his time. It’s the actor’s strongest performance in years as a man who finds a glimmer of light buried beneath layers of hopelessness and defeat.
Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson and others make up a strong supporting cast, and Cretton — best known for “Short Term 12” — keeps things moving down a path that feels familiar but is rarely less than satisfying. We know what’s coming in movies like this, and Cretton isn’t shy about piling on: A snippet from the haunting slave song “No More Auction Block” doesn’t really need to be followed by Stevenson talking about how slaves were auctioned off nearby, but Jordan sells it nonetheless.
So does the rest of “Just Mercy,” for the most part. Cretton has made and will make subtler movies, but probably none that will prompt as many mid-screening rounds of applause. As with the real-life Stevenson’s work, the cause is noble and the folks in charge know what they’re doing.