Director Of 'Just Mercy' Depicts Characters 'In All Of Their Complexities' | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Director Of 'Just Mercy' Depicts Characters 'In All Of Their Complexities'

Jan 2, 2020

Bryan Stevenson's bestselling book Just Mercy may not seem like the most obvious candidate for a splashy Hollywood movie adaptation. It's about the founding of a not-for-profit advocacy organization that helps low-income people who were denied fair trials. And the plot follows the grueling legal work necessary to appeal the sentences of convicted murderers on Alabama's death row, not all of whom are wrongly accused.

But the book resonated with Destin Daniel Cretton, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the $25 million picture, which came out in limited release on Christmas and just in time for the Oscars. Cretton is part of a generation of Asian American directors making significant inroads into Hollywood. He grew up in a tiny Hawaiian town on the island of Maui. His Japanese American mom was a hairdresser, his Caucasian dad was a firefighter and they raised Cretton, along with his five brothers and sisters, in a two-bedroom home originally owned by his grandparents by a pineapple field near the beach.

"We had a tin roof," the director recalls in an interview with NPR. "When the winds would change and the rains blew in the opposite direction ... we'd have anywhere between 10 to 12 buckets hanging from nails on the ceiling to catch the leaks that were everywhere."

Cretton and his siblings were allowed limited television time, so they spent most of their free time playing outside. "It was a wonderful way to grow up," he says. "It was an adventure. It also wasn't extremely abnormal at that time in Hawaii ... to be living in a house like that."

Cretton attended a small Christian college in San Diego, Calif., that gave scholarships to kids from the islands, and got a job working with foster children at a group home. In graduate school, he made a movie, Short Term 12, based on his experiences there. A longer version of the film blew open the doors to Hollywood when it came out in 2013. It won dozens of awards, and its cast of then unknowns are now mostly stars, including Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Bohemian Rhapsody), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Kaitlyn Dever (Unbelievable, Booksmart), Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta), and Brie Larson, now famous for her Oscar-winning turn in Room and for playing Captain Marvel. She's worked with Cretton in every one of his movies since. Cretton says that group home job prepared him in some ways for directing actors.

"Everything about the work has to do with understanding a person in all of their complexities," he says. "And all of their backstories and communicating that to the people who are in charge of them."

Cretton's co-writer on Just Mercy, Andrew Lanham, collaborated with him earlier on a 2017 film adaptation of Jeannette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle. He describes Cretton as passionate and kind. "He's very interested in different systems, like the system of children in a foster home, the justice system or the people on death row," Lanham says. "And he always, I think, approaches the system through the lens of family. He's very moved and inspired by the families people are able to create in spite of, or despite, or in overcoming the limitations that society and the world have placed around them."

In Just Mercy, one family is the community of prisoners on death row. Another is the group of criminal justice advocates working with Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. Stevenson was deeply involved in adapting his book into the film, says Cretton, but adds that Stevenson did not get to pick the actor who played him.

"As soon as we said 'Michael B. Jordan,' he said that sounded great," he chuckles. Jordan is known for his work in The Wire, Fruitvale Station and more recently, Creed and Black Panther. Many of his speeches in the film were taken directly from transcripts of Stevenson in the actual courtroom, defending Walter McMillian, an innocent man held on death row for six years. He's played, movingly, in Just Mercy by Jamie Foxx.

One of the biggest celebrities on the planet saw an early version of Just Mercy, and was deeply affected by it. Partly because of seeing it, Kim Kardashian West threw herself into helping a condemned prisoner in Texas get a stay of execution in November and has helped more than a dozen other prisoners get released. Cretton, who hasn't met Kardashian, says he's delighted. "Anyone who was moved by this movie, I think that's wonderful," Cretton says.

While Cretton's next movie may not save lives directly, it will change them. Cretton, who had a hard time coming up with any Asian American representation he saw as a child outside of the WWE wrestler Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, is working on the very first Marvel Studios movie centered on an Asian superhero. He's currently filming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in New Zealand. It's scheduled to open in February 2021, during the Lunar New Year.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An innocent man condemned to death row finds a champion in the new movie "Just Mercy." It is based on the bestselling book by Bryan Stevenson about his real-life work helping people who may have been denied fair trials, many of them low-income and African American. NPR's Neda Ulaby introduces us to the director who adapted "Just Mercy" for the screen.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Destin Daniel Cretton is half Japanese, half white and from Hawaii. He and his five brothers and sisters grew up with their fireman dad and stay-at-home mom in a little house on the island of Maui.

DESTIN DANIEL CRETTON: I mean, it was a house, but it was - when the winds would change and the rain blew in the opposite direction, we had a tin roof, and we'd have anywhere between, like, 10 or 12 buckets hanging from nails on the ceiling to catch all the leaks that were everywhere.

ULABY: The future Hollywood director played outside in pineapple fields and on the nearby beach.

CRETTON: It was a wonderful way to grow up. It was an adventure. It also wasn't extremely abnormal at that time in Hawaii to be living - especially in the small town of Haiku, to be living in a house like that.

ULABY: Destin Daniel Cretton left for a small Christian college in California that gave scholarships to kids from the island. After he graduated, he got a job working with teenagers at a group home, and he made a movie, "Short Term 12," based on his experiences there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHORT TERM 12")

BRIE LARSON: (As Grace Howard) It's going to be OK, Jayden. It's going to be OK.

KAITLYN DEVER: (As Jayden Cole) I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.

ULABY: "Short Term 12" blew open the doors to Hollywood when it came out in 2013. It won dozens of awards. Its unknown cast are now mostly stars, including actress Brie Larson, now famous for playing Captain Marvel. She's worked with Cretton in every single one of his movies since. Cretton says that group home job prepared him in some ways for directing actors.

CRETTON: Everything about the work has to do with understanding a person and all of their complexities and all of their backstory and communicating that to the people who are in charge of them.

ANDREW LANHAM: He's very interested in different systems, like the system of children in a foster home, the justice system or the people on death row.

ULABY: Andrew Lanham has co-written two movies with Destin Daniel Cretton, including "Just Mercy."

LANHAM: And he always, I think, approaches the system through the lens of family, the families people are able to create in spite of or despite or in overcoming the limitations that, like, society and the world have placed around them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUST MERCY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, vocalizing).

ULABY: In "Just Mercy," one family is the community of prisoners on death row, here banging their cups in their cells in solidarity with a fellow inmate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUST MERCY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We all wishing. We love you, Ray (ph).

ULABY: Another family is the group of criminal justice advocates working with lawyer Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, Ala., pushing back against deeply entrenched racism in a small southern town.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUST MERCY")

LARSON: (As Eva Ansley) So an 18-year-old black girl is murdered in broad daylight, and the sheriff can't solve the crime for how long?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Almost a year.

LARSON: (As Eva Ansley) And then some other guy who's charged with a different murder says that he can tell them who did it if he gets a lower sentence, and the guy that he says did it happens to be a black man from a poor community that no one would think twice about.

MICHAEL B JORDAN: (As Bryan Stevenson) There's got to be more evidence than this.

ULABY: Bryan Stevenson, the real lawyer who founded the not-for-profit Equal Justice Initiative, was deeply involved in adapting his book, "Just Mercy," into the film, says director Destin Daniel Cretton. But Stevenson did not get to pick who played him.

CRETTON: He didn't. But as soon as we said Michael B. Jordan, he said, that sounds great (laughter).

ULABY: Many of Michael B. Jordan's speeches in character in the film were taken directly from transcripts of Bryan Stevenson in the actual courtroom, defending an innocent man on death row.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUST MERCY")

JORDAN: (As Bryan Stevenson) If we're just going to accept a system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent, then we can't claim to be just.

ULABY: One of the biggest celebrities on Earth saw on early screening of "Just Mercy." Kim Kardashian West was deeply affected by the movie. Partly because of seeing it, she threw herself into helping a condemned prisoner in Texas get a stay of execution in November and has helped more than a dozen other prisoners get released.

CRETTON: Anybody who is moved by this movie, I think that's wonderful. I've never met Kim before, but that's cool.

ULABY: Director Destin Daniel Cretton's next movie may not directly save lives, but it will change them. The Asian American director is working on the very first Marvel Studios movie centered on an Asian superhero. "Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings" is filming now in New Zealand. It's scheduled to open in February 2021, during the Lunar New Year.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LIGHT THROUGH THE VEINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.