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How an Asian American Director told an African American story in Just Mercy

By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America – Destin Daniel Cretton, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81068775

By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer

After watching an advanced screening of film Just Mercy, I gasped and sighed because I couldn’t believe how powerful the film was. Not only was it star studded, but it touched all my emotions from feeling sad, angry, happy, hopeful and finally inspired. But, more importantly it pinpoints issues around racial inequality within the US justice system, and how there were/are wrongful incarceration and death row sentences given to people all because of the color of their skin.

The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name Just Mercy which is the 2014 memoir of Bryan Stevenson about the exoneration of Walter McMillian, a Black man who spent nearly six years on Alabama’s death row after being convicted of a murdering a White woman, a crime he didn’t commit. At first glance it sounds eerily familiar with the history of the slavery of African Americans centuries ago and all the lynchings in the early to mid 1900s, but all this was happening in the 1990s and sadly is still happening to this day.

Starring familiar names such as Michel B. Jordan ( as Bryan Stevenson), Jamie Fox ( as Walter McMillan) and Brie Larson ( as Ava Ansley), the film will really push your limits and open your eyes to the reality of the USA. In saying that, I had the opportunity to speak with Asian American director Daniel Destin Cretton (who is also directing Marvel’s Shang-Chi) about why he wanted to tell Stevenson’s story and what inspired him to make this movie.

After reading Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy I went away feeling that this was one of the most powerful and impactful books I have read in a long time. I really connected with Bryan and the people he wrote about in his memoir and I knew then that I wanted to be a part of this story some how. A powerful story needs to be inspiring and bring hope and that is the impact which Bryan bought to me. For the first time I saw the humor he was writing about with his characters, but I also wasn’t expecting to feel so much hope by the end and I think that was the moment I knew I wanted to direct this film.

Adapting a memoir such as Just Mercy is not an easy feat, considering how substantial the content is and how sensitive the issue is, but on top of that it is also about finding the right actors to do these real life characters justice and bring their story out to the world.

“Adapting a book into a movie is one of the most difficult things to do, because really the book could be a 3 season TV show, so trying to figure out what to put in the movie was the biggest challenge. In saying that we knew from the get go that we wanted to track the Walter McMillan case as the primary focus and hand pick the other real life characters from his book which represent different aspects of the US justice system, and who they represented made it into the movie. In terms of approaching Bryan Stevenson, the first time I met him was in Los Angeles during his Just Mercy book signing, and I had the chance to introduce myself to him beforehand. I wasn’t really trying to convince him to turn his story into a movie but I wanted him to know how passionate I was about the book and the fact that he at the end agreed to be part of it was such a big honor.”

WB Productions

“In terms of casting, Michael B. Jordan was the first person we thought of and the only person we went to to play Bryan in the film. We went to him even before we wrote the script and he signed on as an actor and a producer of the film. Jamie Fox came next and he told us how he couldn’t wait to play Walter McMillan as he connected with that character as he too is from the South and understood the world which McMillan grew up. Every cast member of this film fitted right in and really they signed on as people who personally connected with this problem and issue.”

And finally I spoke with Cretton about being an Asian American directing a film which predominantly talks about the racial injustice against African Americans and how he was able to tell this story without overstepping the boundaries.

“I was definitely coming at this story as a student and I was careful to never come out as some expert because I am not nor was I trying to add my own narrative to it. I am a novice in this, an apprentice learning from Bryan and wouldn’t tell this story if he was not part of the team. Telling a story like this requires a lot of humility, not just by me but every member of my team. We all came at this as people who wanted to learn, help and participate with Bryan’s story and journey. We really relied on him in order to understand the details which made the story and film what it is.”

Extremely powerful is all I can say about the film because as a person of color it really pulled on so many heart strings that in this present day and age there are still incarceration and death row sentences given out wrongfully and purely based on a person’s background and skin color.

Just Mercy opens up in movie theaters in the USA on Christmas Day and worldwide on January 10, 2020, so go check it out when you get the chance.

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