TORONTO — Last year, a little-known period movie about racial tension in the Deep South played this city’s Elgin Theatre to a rousing ovation, and Hollywood and its award season were never the same.
The film was “Green Book,” and for all the backlash about it from critics — and there was plenty — the Universal Pictures release about a black classical musician and his white driver became an anomaly in the franchise-film age. The crowd-pleasing true story not only won best picture but made the kind of global dollars generally reserved for brand-name sequels (more than $300 million, the vast majority of it overseas).
It may have just happened again.
On Friday night, the Toronto International Film Festival saw the world premiere of the Warner Bros. movie “Just Mercy.” The fact-based drama centers on Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who in the 1990s spent years fighting the racially charged (and wrongful) Death Row conviction of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian in rural Alabama. Michael B. Jordan stars as Stevenson, along with Brie Larson as associate Eva Ansley and Jamie Foxx as McMillian.
Like “Green Book,” the movie is being released by a major studio and is produced by the socially minded Participant Media. As with that film, viewers will see a fact-based story of race and redemption in the rural South. And both are about a journey that begins naively, as Stevenson doesn’t really know what he’s in for when he starts out.
But maybe the most important comparative data point is this: The crowd at the Elgin erupted in ecstatic ovations through large parts of the film’s closing moments, most of the credits and parts of the question-and-answer session.
“It’s hard not to cry and not to cheer,” Foxx said of the reaction, generating more applause from the audience. “I hope this will change the narrative in how we see folks.”
Stevenson, who was also at the Q&A, said, “Being in a space like this and seeing people respond to it and get it gives me a great deal of hope,” noting he continued to fight for Death Row inmates in Alabama.
Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed the movie, noted that when he first read Stevenson’s eponymously titled memoir, he thought it was “filled with so much emotion and devastation. And when I got to the last page, it was filled with so much hope and inspiration.”
Capturing big reactions at Toronto, with its large swaths of ordinary filmgoers, is the goal of every studio. It is much easier said than done, however, and responses this rapturous are rare.
Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the TIFF, told The Washington Post before the screening, “There is something that can happen when a lot of people watch a movie together; emotion amplifies. It happened with ‘Green Book.’ And I think [this film] will generate some of that.”
“But there is no formula,” he added. “You can do everything right and still not get it.”
The comparisons to “Green Book” go only so far, of course. Among other differences, there are only scattered white characters, let alone white saviors, a major critique of the year’s best-picture winner. Still, the tough education of a northerner about the strong vestiges of segregation as he comes to learn lessons and take on the system is likely to play to many of the same awards voters — and perhaps commercial audiences.
The Oscar season is very young — Toronto is just the start. And Warner Bros. will have its work cut out for it when it releases the film at Christmas. It will be up against rival holiday releases that include big brand names like “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and the Taylor Swift-starring “Cats,” along with the buzzy literary adaptation “Little Women.” Stories about criminal justice, like Jordan’s “Fruitvale Station,” have in recent years remained largely niche theatrical affairs.
Still, the movie has some superhero figures of its own: Jordan, Larson and Foxx, who’ve played Marvel characters Killmonger, Captain Marvel and Electro, respectively. The pedigrees of the actors, Stevenson said in the Q&A session, “make it a little easier for us to see what’s at stake when we talk about inequality and injustice.”
The biggest selling point for Warner Bros. may be Stevenson’s story. The crusader continues leading the Equal Justice Initiative to free innocent inmates, and he and his presence will be a powerful tool on an Oscar campaign trail that seeks compelling original figures.
Said Jordan: “He’s a real-life superhero.”