In the opening scene of “Just Mercy,” legal intern Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) visits a man on Death Row to inform him it is unlikely the state will execute him in the next year. The prisoner emotionally breaks down, surprising Stevenson, which leads to the two men bonding for hours.
It’s the moment Stevenson, who would go on to become the legendary activist behind the Equal Justice Initiative, has said he discovered exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. According to “Just Mercy” director Destin Daniel Cretton, the scene’s larger importance is the introduction of the film’s key theme.
“Bryan saw a man in chains who looked very hard, had a very harsh look about him, and he wasn’t expecting that young man to show that type of vulnerability and emotion,” said Cretton, who adapted Stevenson’s memoir with Andrew Lanham. “What we’re trying to do in this movie, and what Bryan does in his book, is constantly taking characters that are easy to pass judgment on and have a stereotype against, and show you the other side of them. The side that you can relate to.”
While Cretton’s directorial career is wide ranging, a common theme that stretches from his 2012 SXSW breakout “Short Term 12” to his upcoming “Shang-Chi” for Marvel, is an emphasis on showing the humanity of characters we aren’t often ask to relate to on the big screen.
“We need more movies and more stories that continue to show characters of every ethnicity in ways that we have not seen them before,” said Cretton, who took a break from his intense “Shang-Chi” prep to attend the “Just Mercy” premiere at TIFF this weekend. “We are trying to create something [with “Shang-Chi”] that reflects the Asian American and Asian experience today. There are a lot of stereotypes that I hope our movie helps to break.”
Cretton acknowledged that the 1970s Kung-Fu wave that gave birth to the original Marvel comic included some problematic ethnic stereotypes, a subject with which he is all too familiar.
“When I first moved from Maui to California, it was the first time a random stranger called me Bruce Lee just for kicks and I had people doing the karate chop thing as a joke to me,” said Cretton. “I think the more that we see characters of different ethnicities acting like us, going through experiences that we all relate to, seeing them interact with their families, laugh, and love, and get hurt and get up again, the more those stereotypes break down. The less likely someone is going to see someone with an Asian face and just assume they know kung-fu or are related to Bruce Lee, and I hope that our movie is going to help with that conversation.”
Cretton, who has never directed a film with action or heavy VFX, admits he had serious doubts about taking on a Marvel project, but luckily he had a group of friends who he came up the indie film ranks with who had already successfully made the jump to Marvel.
“Before I went in to do the final pitch, I started say, ‘Oh shit, is this something I really want to do?’” said Cretton. “And then I talked to Brie [Larson] and then I called up Ryan Coogler. The day before I went in I happened to actually just meet Taika [Waititi] in a bar and talked to him, he was super helpful as well.”
Each assured him that he would find his way into the Marvel Universe. “I do feel like going into this Marvel movie it feels like going back to film school,” said Cretton. “I’m learning so much. I’m surrounded by a very supportive team. Everybody there has been a joy to work with so far.”
“Just Mercy” will be in theaters December 25, 2019.