'Just Mercy' Director Destin Daniel Cretton On Characters And 'Complexities' Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton previously had a job working with foster children at a group home. He believes that work — listening, understanding, communicating — helped prepare him for directing.
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Director Of 'Just Mercy' Depicts Characters 'In All Of Their Complexities'

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

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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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