Oscar spotlight: Rob Morgan is a strong supporting actor contender in ‘Just Mercy’

Historical legal drama “Just Mercy” is a strong contender in the Best Supporting Actor race, but have pundits pegged the right performance? For his pivotal part as the wrongfully-convicted Walter “Johnny D.” MacMillan, hundreds of Gold Derby users are predicting Oscar winner Jamie Foxx for another nomination, but character actor Rob Morgan could also break through for playing fellow death row inmate Herbert Richardson. His tragic PTSD-ridden character embodies the stakes of the story, as well as its heart.

The supporting role with the most screen time is not always the one that gains traction on the awards circuit. Titular roles are occasionally subverted for sympathetic characters that elicit warmth from scant material, like when Mahershala Ali received his first Oscar nomination and win for 2016’s “Moonlight” with a quiet performance that was limited to the first third of the film. The supporting actor that the academy nominated from the Best Picture the next year was not incumbent nominee Michael Shannon for his bombastic villain in “The Shape of Water,” but lower-billed Richard Jenkins as the closeted neighbor.

Like Ali, Morgan has been attached to several prestige projects over the last decade. Before “Moonlight,” Ali had shared in a Best Film Drama Ensemble SAG Awards nomination for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and a Best TV Drama Ensemble SAG Awards nomination for “House of Cards.” Morgan has shared in a film ensemble bid for “Mudbound” and a TV ensemble win for “Stranger Things.” Both Ali and Morgan had recurring roles in Marvel series on Netflix; Ali also recurred on the Emmy-winning “Treme” and Emmy-nominated “The 4400;” Morgan has also recurred on the Emmy-winning “Godless” and “This is Us.”

Ali is not the only Best Supporting Actor winner in recent years to win on his first nomination after years as a journeyman actor. J.K. Simmons had shared in five SAG cast nominations for “The Closer” and had been a fixture on television with long-running roles on the likes of “Law & Order” and “Oz” before going straight to a win at the Oscars for 2014’s “Whiplash,” having previously appeared on the big screen in the “Spider-Man” franchise and the Oscar-winning “Juno.” The academy might feel similarly that Martin has done his time to be due for recognition.

Following the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Post called on the academy specifically to take note of Morgan’s “masterful embodiment.” His portrayal of the late real-life Vietnam War veteran was hailed as “devastating” by Entertainment Weekly and “achingly effective” by the Los Angeles Times; Vanity Fair remarked that Morgan is “always excellent” and SlashFilm cited this as “breakout work.” Consequence of Sound wrote that Morgan “is subtly striking but restrained. Playing a veteran with PTSD and noticeable ticks could have easily devolved into hamminess, but Morgan never lets his portrayal obscure Richardson’s humanity. He’s both heartfelt and heartbreaking in the role.” The Hollywood Reporter did a spotlight: “The best awards bets for ‘Just Mercy’ are probably two supporting actors who make the most of a number of big moments to shine: Foxx and […] Morgan.”

This equating is at odds with Gold Derby’s odds based on the combined predictions of our users and pundits, which rank Foxx eighth in the race, but Morgan 53rd. The latter should close much of the gap with his co-star once “Just Mercy” opens for general audiences on Christmas. In the meantime, Morgan will be just as much of a devastating surprise to audiences as he was to the one of which I was a part at the 38th Vancouver International Film Festival, which screened the title under its highbrow “Panorama” selection.

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