Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy” is sort of the forgotten movie of the season. I put it on my top 10 list when I saw it in Toronto, and expected it to be the “Green Book” of 2019. But the film isn’t being released until Christmas Day. In New York, there’s been little publicity for it. All the awards groups have passed it over except for SAG, which nominated Jamie Foxx for Best Supporting Actor.
So where is everyone? Finally, Sunday night, a confusing and weird cocktail reception and Q&A was held at the Edition Hotel in Times Square. This thoughtful, wonderfully made movie was relegated to this odd spot at the center of Christmas chaos, where there was no food for the press but plenty at empty tables guarded for actors who weren’t there. If you tried to take a slider, someone from a company called Allied started screaming in horror.
But for the first time — at least in New York– the cast was all assembled. Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, Rob Morgan, Brie Larson, but no director. Cretton was said be “in L.A.” He’s been shooting a Marvel movie in Australia. But since Larson did the movie as a favor for him, I thought he’d come and press some flesh. Don’t press your luck.
The other person, and most important, in attendance was civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson. The movie is based on his book about rescuing Walter McMillan from Alabama’s death row. Jordan plays Stevenson in the movie, a young Harvard lawyer who skips the big bucks and heads south to defend black people who’ve been railroaded, or wrongly convicted of crimes, pro bono. Foxx is McMillan. (You’re made of stone if you don’t cry or tear up at his performance.) Rob Morgan is another prisoner on death row. The actors do sublime work, some of the very best of the year.
One performance that is jarring and should have been in the awards mix this season was Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Meyers, the man who lied in his testimony and put McMillan on death row. When Stevenson/Jordan digs in, he discovers what Meyers did. Nelson is sensational. It’s hard to root for such a villain, but Nelson gives him dimensions you wouldn’t think existed.
Stevenson. Foxx, Jordan, Larson, and Morgan sat on a makeshift stage for a short but informative Q&A before they were whisked away. (I tried to talk to them, but was given intentional misdirection.)
The actors are passionate about the project, which Jordan got an executive producer credit. He said, “I’ve made Marvel movies, all kinds movies, but this is the one I am most proud of.”
There was a stumbling moment during the Q&A when the moderator, Charlamagne tha God, asked Oscar winner Larson what, as a white woman, she made of all this. This sort of stopped traffic as Larson had to sort through that for a minute. But her comeback was perfect: she’s open, she’s listening, and learning. “And I liked the question,” she added brightly, which was very gracious of her.
But Stevenson is the main takeaway here. He’s a huge force in civil liberties. Most of the guests didn’t know who he was, but he’s important enough that journalist and author Michael Eric Dyson came up from Washington, DC to see him and the movie.
Why is Stevenson a hero? Jordan said on stage: “I think because he’s selfless and he doesn’t fatigue. He’s so optimistic and so hopeful in the most dismal situation, I can’t even fathom. In the situations he was in, kept his calm and he kept his cool when he was bring strip searched, antagonized, racially profiled. He still kept his cool. In the scene, I wanted to react differently show rage and lash out. Those would have been my acting choices. But that’s not what Bryan Stevenson is or was.”
Stevenson summed it up: “I don’t believe we that our country will be judged by how we treat the powerful and the celebrated. We’re going to be judged by how we treat the poor and the incarcerated.”
Please, please see this film starting Christmas Day. Tell your friends, spread the word. I hope to have more on it in the next ten days.