How This Soft-Spoken Director Conquered Hollywood With Radical Empathy

Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed the upcoming film Just Mercy, which is drawing Oscar buzz, said it was "a long journey that honestly started with a lot of self-doubt."

When Destin Daniel Cretton took the stage of Toronto’s Elgin Theatre in September, he was brimming with emotion. The filmmaker was there to introduce the world premiere of Just Mercy, his first movie to make its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, and to mark the occasion, Cretton explained that the festive lei draped around his neck had just been flown in from his home state of Hawaii by his brother.

“My mom made this, like, a day ago,” he said with a wide grin as the audience cooed. “So it’s fresh!”

As his film’s large ensemble cast — including Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, and Michael B. Jordan — joined Cretton on stage, he made a point to hug every one of them. Then he grew quiet. He had one more person to introduce: Bryan Stevenson, his film’s subject, the Harvard-educated lawyer who had dedicated his life to working with death row inmates, many in the Deep South, to prevent their executions.

“My wife and I have an almost 2-year-old son,” Cretton said. “Sometimes it’s hard thinking about the world that we are leaving him, and it can be overwhelming. Sometimes it can feel hopeless. But there is somebody who gives me incredible hope for the future of our world, not only for the work that he has done, but for the spirit that he represents.”

Cretton suddenly paused. Overcome with emotion, he let out a high “woooooooo,” brought Stevenson to the stage, lifted the lei from his neck, and placed it around Stevenson’s.

Sitting in a Los Angeles diner a month later, Cretton recalled the moment with a quiet, almost weary smile.

“It was a long journey,” he said. “It was a long journey that honestly started with a lot of self-doubt — a lot of, Am I really the person to tell this story?

That question means a lot of things to Cretton. The 41-year-old has charted an uncommon career, directing films, including Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle, that focus on people on the periphery of mainstream pop culture who have built their lives striving — imperfectly — to be understood, to be seen, beyond the snap judgements placed on them by the world.

“He’s very, very attentive to the challenges that we all face,” Stevenson told BuzzFeed News. “I love that he gives people space to be human.”

Cretton has also spent much of his life on the periphery, navigating diminished expectations and prejudiced first impressions that all but eclipsed his ability to see himself in the enviable position he now occupies, with an acclaimed film opening over the holidays and generating Oscar buzz, and a groundbreaking Marvel Studios movie — 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — as his next project.

Cretton has reached this moment as the entertainment industry has itself grappled with the question of who gets to tell the stories of people who don’t often, if ever, get their stories told. And as one of a tiny handful of Asian American directors to have a feature film career at all, Cretton’s confronting that issue just as Hollywood has finally appeared to make substantive — if uncertain — strides toward more diverse representation on screen, and more equal opportunities off-screen.

All of it, he said, is in service of a simple notion: Reach at least “one person out there who can potentially feel seen in a way that they feel a little less alone in the world.”

Cretton grew up the son of a Japanese mother and a white father, the second oldest of six siblings who span roughly a decade in age. They all lived in a small two-bedroom home with a leaky roof in the tiny, two-road community of Haiku on the island of Maui.

He was only allowed to watch television one night a week (ABC’s TGIF lineup every Friday night), but his dad did take him to see movies, blockbusters like 1989’s Batman, 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and 1993’s The Fugitive — basically, whatever was big enough to make it to Maui.

“The [movie] theater on Maui really became a bit of an escape haven for me,” Cretton said. “I honestly don’t ever recall not liking a movie. I just loved being in the theater and watching anything. I think it really helped me feel connected to a world when I’m living on an island in the middle of an ocean.”

Movies weren’t just a metaphoric escape for Cretton. By the time he was 10, his grandmother had lent him her VHS camcorder, which transformed him into a kid-sized auteur, bossing around his siblings as they made their own mini movies and silly TV spots. Despite his budding passion for filmmaking, though, it never occurred to him that he could ever make movies as a profession.

“My worldview was very small growing up,” he said. “I didn’t have aspirations to do anything other than stay on the island and get some kind of a job that would allow me to survive living there and go surfing and live a fairly simple life. … Honestly, my dad told me, ‘If you want job security, be a plumber or a garbage man.’”

As a teenager, Cretton did get a job — not picking up garbage, but as an au pair taking care of a kid with cerebral palsy.

“I was in charge of driving him around, helping him bathe and use the restroom and all the things that he couldn’t do,” Cretton said. “I mean, he had physical needs, but he was one of the smartest kids ever, so it was super fun to hang out with. He had no shame about the different things that he needed help with. I quickly learned not to have any shame with doing those things.”

The experience proved to be an early example of one of the guiding principles for Cretton’s life and work: Give people the space to show the fullness of who they really are.

“It’s a life lesson, I think, that I learn over and over — and am sometimes on the receiving end of with people who pass judgments on me,” he said.

Cretton’s parents homeschooled their children, but Cretton elected to go to his public junior high school, mostly because it offered a ukulele class he really wanted to take. He didn’t have many friends there, though, and his local high school had an unnerving reputation for violence, so he joined his siblings for homeschooling once he reached ninth grade.

When he wasn’t at home or working as an au pair, Cretton spent the majority of his time with his Christian youth group, and slowly it helped him begin to build out his social circle. Those bonds became so important to Cretton that, ironically, they drew him back to high school for his senior year, since all his youth group friends were there. When in the late 1990s several of those friends left home to attend Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Cretton followed.

It was the first time, really, that Cretton ventured beyond the chaotic and cloistered paradise of his life on Maui. The experience was revelatory in the way college is for most kids, but also because before he’d arrived in San Diego, Cretton hadn’t really experienced what it means to be part of an ethnic minority group in the US.

“Being an Asian American in Hawaii, you're a part of the very eclectic mix of cultures there,” he said. “Coming to the mainland was kind of the first time that I felt that feeling of being an Other.”

There was the more obvious racism, like people who would call him “Bruce Lee” to his face, or make kung fu moves and act like it was just a joke. And then there was a different, more insidious kind of bigotry, “subtly humiliating experiences” Cretton endured that didn’t fully register with him until years later, tied less to his Asian heritage, he said, than to “assumptions that were made about me because of the culture that I came from.”

He means the Hawaiian culture. It’s evident almost immediately when meeting him, in the easygoing stillness of his demeanor and the relaxed, unhurried inflection of his voice. As a kid, Cretton was surrounded by people just like him, but even in a mainland city as relatively laid-back as San Diego, the differences were stark.

“Because I move at a certain pace, which is definitely a result of growing up on an island, it means [people assume] there’s nothing really going on upstairs,” he said. Professors actively discouraged him from pursuing a filmmaking career, he said, because they didn’t think he’d keep up in the breakneck Hollywood rat race.

“I’m also fairly reserved. I suck at networking. So I have these attributes that I think were reflected back on me as being weaknesses,” he said. “That’s something that took some time for me to be able to embrace them as a different type of strength.”

In his senior year of college, Cretton spent a semester in a special filmmaking program in Los Angeles, interning at Nickelodeon Movies and directing his first “real” short film. Shot on black-and-white Super 8 film, it’s about a wealthy 10-year-old child who shares his toys with a working class kid who lives around the corner. Cretton was knocked out by the power of having his classmates respond to something he’d made. But even then, he still would not allow himself to consider pursuing filmmaking as a bona fide career.

“There’s just a lack of encouragement to do it, so it made it really hard to even get to a place where I would admit that this is something I wanted to do,” he said. It wasn’t until four years after graduating from Point Loma, when he was accepted to San Diego State University’s graduate film school, that he dared to let himself say out loud, “Yes, I want to be a director.”

“Up until that point,” he said, “I was just so afraid of the reaction to it, which was often a subtle eyeroll or ‘good luck with that,’ that I just chose not to tell people.”

Between his time at Point Loma and San Diego State University, Cretton took a job as a counselor in a group home, working with children who were unable to live with either their biological families or with foster parents. It was such an intense and deeply humbling experience that Cretton transformed it into a short film, Short Term 12, which won the top jury prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Five years later, his feature adaptation of the same title won the top jury prize at the SXSW Film Festival.

The latter film’s success catapulted Cretton’s career — as well as the careers of the film’s star, Brie Larson, and costars Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, and Lakeith Stanfield (who made his feature debut). For Cretton, however, the more immediate effect was far more personal. He poured more of himself into Short Term 12 than anything he’d ever made before, and the audience response provided him an almost shocking degree of personal connection in a way he hadn’t quite expected or experienced.

“Watching characters express insecurities that I have and then talking to people in the audience who are able to say they have those insecurities, they have those thoughts — it felt like I was communing with people in a way that I hadn’t really before,” he said. “When I see a character up on a screen that I really feel or relate to, it makes me feel less alone in the world. I feel like, oh, if they made a movie about that, there must be other people who go through something like it. That’s what I hope to make with every movie that I do.”

Cretton’s innate drive to embrace the full complexity of his characters’ humanity — to connect, connect, connect — is also what won him the opportunity to make Just Mercy.

It started when Cretton’s longtime producer, Gil Netter, handed him Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of the same title, about Stevenson’s work as the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. One of the book’s main subjects, Walter McMillian — on death row even after 12 witnesses swore he was at a fish fry at the time of the murder for which he was convicted — transfixed Cretton. He devoured all the chapters about McMillian in one sitting, and by the time he finished the whole book, Cretton knew it should be a movie. He just wasn’t at all convinced he should be the one to make it.

“My biggest question was, Who am I to tell this story?” Cretton said. “It wasn’t until I met with Bryan and heard how he connected with the movies that I’d done, and that was the thing that gave me the strength to be like, OK, maybe I can do this. … I was surprised by the insight that he had into the work that I did.”

Stevenson said he responded to how Cretton presents his characters in a way that subverts or complicates our initial impressions of them, peeling back the traumas that shaped their lives and their ability (or lack thereof) to function in the world. “He’s got a beautiful eye for getting past mistakes that people make and understanding the forces that created that mistake,” Stevenson said.

Even with Stevenson’s blessing, Cretton remained nagged by one simple fact: “I am very much an outsider to the African American experience,” he said. “When I was reading Just Mercy, it was an eye-opening experience for me. It wasn’t a oh-yeah-that’s-my-life [one].”

Cretton believed that if he was going to succeed as Just Mercy’s director, he had to set himself and his own preconceptions aside.

“I think any director has to personally connect to the project somehow,” he said. “Oftentimes it makes sense, if there’s a real personal connection to the culture and not an outsider looking in. But a director’s job is also to learn and study and adapt and have a vision for something. And not every experience is their own.”

So throughout the filmmaking process — from adapting Stevenson’s book with regular collaborator Andrew Lanham to shooting the film in Alabama and Georgia — he did the only thing he thought he should do: He asked questions. A lot of them.

“He really wanted to hear what it’s like growing up Black in the South,” said Jamie Foxx, who plays McMillian, over email. “He understood how much this story means to us and felt a responsibility to get it right. Destin may not be Black, but he is a person of color, and he has a tremendous capacity for listening and he also has great empathy.”

Stevenson said Cretton was “incredibly humble” throughout the process of making the film.

“I’d encountered film directors that are very strong personalities, that have a very set view of what they’re going to do,” he said. “Destin came into this very open, and basically said, ‘I want to be responsive to your perspective.’”

Cretton put it more bluntly, admitting to an impulse few directors would say out loud. “I repeatedly told Bryan, ‘If I’m ever taking this in a direction that doesn’t feel right, or you’re not into it, I will be the first one to step off the project,’” he said. “I just really didn’t see a reason for me to fight for it. But Bryan was the one who championed me.”

Before Just Mercy, Cretton’s first three features — including 2012’s I Am Not a Hipster, about an indie musician in San Diego, and 2017’s The Glass Castle, an adaptation of journalist Jeannette Walls’ memoir about her poverty-stricken childhood living with nomadic parents — all featured white protagonists. When this fact was pointed out to Cretton during his interview by way of asking if that was part of his consideration for wanting to make Just Mercy, his eyes went wide.

“Um, no,” he said, with a nervous laugh. “I never ever really — I mean, I didn’t even think about that until right now.”

Cretton took a moment to collect his thoughts.

“I’ve always wanted to tell more stories from minority points of view,” he said, speaking even more deliberately than usual. “I guess, in my mind, Short Term 12 was from a minority point of view. It was just, I guess, potentially foreign to me to write from a female point of view for the first time, especially a female who is in a position of power and leadership in really another kind of male-dominated place.”

He explained that, like so many filmmakers, his early films were predicated on taking advantage of whatever opportunities were most readily available. “The only actors I knew were white at the time, who I could get access to. So I was making what I could around what I knew,” he said.

Just Mercy was an opportunity to do things differently — and not just in front of the camera. It was the first film made under WarnerMedia’s new company-wide diversity and inclusion policy, spearheaded in part by Just Mercy star and executive producer Michael B. Jordan. It meant that when Cretton started hiring department heads, he encountered none of the catch-22 institutional resistance that had historically blocked so many people of color from advancing their careers.

“There were a number of African Americans, really talented people who have been doing their line of work for sometimes 20, 30 years, and had never been the head of department before,” he said. “We were able to give them that because we didn’t have a studio saying, ‘But they’ve never done this before.’ They were not unprepared. They could have done it 10, 15 years ago and been great.”

Cretton had never made a movie with a major studio before, and he almost can’t believe Just Mercy got made at all. Fact-based, social justice dramas are virtually extinct in modern Hollywood, and Cretton holds no illusions about how receptive the town’s gatekeepers are to the kinds of deeply personal, human-scaled movies he wants to make.

People are receptive,” he said ruefully. “When it comes time to green-light a movie, less so. You know, it is a business, and it’s not usually the most sellable pitch.”

One might presume that hard financial reality drove Cretton into the monied and prosperous corporate arms of Marvel Studios. In truth, his path to directing Shang-Chi was just as personal as anything else he’s made — in part because, at first, he absolutely did not think he’d make it.

“It wasn’t really on my radar to even want to do a big Marvel movie,” he said. But when he read the news that Marvel was backing its very first Asian superhero movie, and the first ever made by a Hollywood studio, he asked his agent to set up a meeting.

“I went in to see what they were doing,” he said. “Because anyone who has read those comics from that era knows that there’s a lot of stereotypes in there.” Just one example: Dubbed the “Master of Kung Fu,” Shang-Chi’s character debuted in Marvel Comics in the 1970s as the son of Fu Manchu, perhaps the most notorious Orientalist stereotype of the 20th century.

“I honestly thought at best I could maybe, through the process of meeting with them, just explain some of the things that would be offensive to me, and maybe guide it in some way just by getting my voice in someone’s ear,” Cretton said with a chuckle.

He was relieved to learn that Marvel’s creative team absolutely wanted to avoid replicating any Asian stereotypes from its comic book past — and he was shocked to realize they were keen for him to help them do it. “I didn’t think I was going to end up getting the gig.”

He’s still a little incredulous that he has it. “But the kid in me got really excited about giving a superhero to a new generation of Asian kids, someone who looks like them up on a big screen,” he said.

After a lifetime spent in the margins with the world telling him “no,” Cretton is finally hearing an enthusiastic “yes” — and he wants to ensure many others like him get a chance to hear it, too.

“I mean, right now,” he said, “it is all I want to do.” ●

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