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SDSU Grad Destin Cretton Serves Up Social Justice With 'Just Mercy' Film

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Filmmaker Destin Cretton went to SDSU and was recently tapped to direct the upcoming Marvel film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Currently his film “Just Mercy” in theaters. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando showed Cretton's student films a decade ago and has been following his career. He spoke with her by phone last week from Sydney, Australia.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Filmmaker, Destin Cretan went to SDSU and was recently tapped to direct the upcoming Marvel film Shang CI. Currently he has the film just mercy in theaters. The film tells the story of New York lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, who started the equal justice initiative in Alabama. KPBS arts reporter Beth hock Amando showed Cretans student films a decade ago and has been following his career. He spoke with her by phone last week from Sydney, Australia.

Speaker 2: 00:30 I want to just start by saying that I've had the pleasure of watching you grow and mature as a filmmaker since I was able to show all your early student films and I think you said that it was going to one of the student festivals. I ran that you saw a film by Greg Durbin who was from San Diego state and that actually inspired you to go into filmmaking.

Speaker 3: 00:54 Yeah, that was the first time I watched. I went to a festival that had short films and then Greg, he went up and did a Q and a afterwards and Greg was kind of the first film maker, the local Frank and I reached out to you and we were doing our first shorts in San Diego. So he was our introduction to the San Diego scene there.

Speaker 2: 01:18 So in watching you grow up as a filmmaker and seeing a number of your short films and now your features, it seems like one of the things that's running through all of them is this sense of community, whether it's looking at a, a larger community or how individuals fit into a community, but that seems to be a running theme. And do you see that as something in your work?

Speaker 3: 01:41 Yeah, it is. I don't, I'm not sure if it's a conscious decision or not. I mean community is, has always been in an important theme in my life. It's part of the growing up experience in Hawaii is and community is kind of everything. Their community and family. It's just part of the culture to call your friends parents by auntie and uncle. That's the, the vibe of growing up on the Island is that we're kind of all in this together, so we might as well make the best of it.

Speaker 2: 02:13 Now, how did you discover just mercy and the story of Brian Stevenson?

Speaker 3: 02:18 I first read the book the year that it came out and it just gripped me from the first page. I was so surprised by the way that Brian Stevenson painted these characters. I mean, I, I feel like I constantly, um, relearning the lesson of don't judge a book by its cover over and over and over in my life. And when I read Bryan Stevenson's book just mercy, that's really what he does so brilliantly throughout the book as he starts with a character that is very easy judge. Then he starts peeling off the layers of that person introducing you to how they grew up, what their family life was like. Um, where they abused as a child. Did they go to war? And by the end of each chapter, you now have a completely different perspective on the character. And that's really what he not only does in his book, that's what he does in his work. That's how he gets people off of death row. Who are, they're wrongfully accused. He tells these stories and paints these pictures, uh, to judges and juries in order for them to have a really full perspective of who that person is. And the judgment of them really does shift. Once you, once you really know a person, let's hear a scene from just mercy in which lawyer Bryan Stevenson played by Michael B. Jordan visits his client, Walter McMillan play by Jamie Fox in prison.

Speaker 4: 03:55 You respond from Harvey, you don't know what it is here. When you're guilty from the moment you're born and you can buddy up with these white folks and make them laugh and try to make them like you, whatever that is. And you say, yes sir, no ma'am. But when it's your turn, they ain't got to have no fingerprints, no evidence, and the only witness that got ate the whole thing up. And none of that matter when all y'all think is, is I look like a man who could kill somebody. That's not what I think

Speaker 3: 04:31 is there really is a pretty intense feeling of helplessness with the African American community and that the issue of mass incarceration and what I've found really emotionally moving through the book and through telling this story, was seeing how when one family member is locked up, how it affects the entire family and the community from which that person came from. In particular, when someone is locked up or accused for a crime like this, when it was very clear that that person, Walter McMillan was in the company of 30 members of his family and his community at the time of this murder. And when a judge and jury that are primarily Caucasian, look at Walter McMillan and look at that community and say, no, you guys are all wrong. He was on the other side of town doing this murder and whatever you all say does not matter. The stripping of truth from a community with something that was really eye opening to me. And the frustration that comes along with that is real psychological battle that not only is happening to the person who's in prison but all of his loved ones who are left out outside. And one of the things that I really like about your films is the way you keep on a very

Speaker 2: 05:58 human scale. You know, when you get a Hollywood movie you can sometimes make people larger than life and you know, this sense of things happening really quickly. And, and in this film you really got that sense of how much work he put in and how long it took to, you know, affect any kind of a change. And I thought that was uh, you know, really compelling.

Speaker 3: 06:23 That's definitely a reason result of working closely with Brian Stevenson throughout the process. And there were certain things that he was rightfully so very protective of. And one of those was really trying to show how one, how easy it is in this judicial system that we have, how easy it is to lock up somebody, particularly people who are poor and don't have the legal resources that other people have. How easy it is to lock somebody up and, and condemn, condemn them to die in prison and how long and difficult it is to navigate the system in order to get that person out even when all of the evidence points to their innocence.

Speaker 2: 07:10 And how does it feel moving from something like this to, you know, now being one of the directors who's going to be working on a Marvel film? It seems like such a leap in a kind of a different direction.

Speaker 3: 07:24 It is a big leap. I will say that, um, the process is extremely different and the same in the same breath. I mean I think that the thing that we all love about Marvel movies is they do look and concentrate on characters who feel like humans and feel real and joke like we joke and cry like we cry. And that's the thing that feels like a constant between the two.

Speaker 2: 07:50 Well, I want to thank you very much for taking some time and talking to me all the way from Sydney and

Speaker 3: 07:57 thank you Beth. So great to hear your voice.

Speaker 2: 08:00 That was Beth OCHA, Mondo speaking with filmmaker Destin Cretan about just mercy, which is currently playing in theaters.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.