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Nahnatchka Khan, Hasan Minhaj, ‘Just Mercy’ Cast Talk Inclusion at CAA Amplify

It’s one thing to talk about the need for diversity and inclusion, and it’s another thing to create it.

Focusing on two characters that wouldn’t typically be portrayed as romantic leads, Netflix film “Always Be My Maybe” was a “satisfying” project to make, said director Nahnatchka Khan at the CAA Amplify conference in Ojai, sitting on a “culture creators” panel with comedian Hasan Minhaj and NBA star Chris Paul.

“We’re all big fans of the rom-com genre, and then special things happen when you center people who have never been centered before,” said Khan of the Asian American ensemble. “Randall Park and Ali Wong, they are so many things; they’re not just one thing, they’re bigger than just their identity. They’re a leading man, a leading woman… you can be layered, you can be more than one thing, you can exist outside the box.”

For his part, Minhaj said his “insider, outsider relationship with America” as a Muslim Indian American plays to his advantage as he tackles current affairs on his Netflix series “Patriot Act,” giving him a global perspective on topics that he asserts U.S. media often treats with a narrower view.

“For me, with the show, the exciting thing is “Patriot Act” gets to exist in a space where there previously is a lot of white space,” said Minhaj.

“Literally – there’s two Jimmys in late night,” he quipped.

“And a James,” chimed in Khan.

The politics-heavy news cycle has prompted those in non-political fields to use their platforms to speak out, a form of engagement that Minhaj sees as a positive.

“Everyone always says the news is really depressing… the good news that I’ve taken out of everything that’s happening is political culture has become popular culture,” he said, adding, “I see it as an opportunity to use our shows and comedy as a way to talk about this stuff.”

The multi-day, invitation-only CAA retreat – a combination of TED Talk-style panels and high-level networking against the luxuriously verdant backdrop of the Ojai Valley Inn – brought together about 200 industry execs, talent and politicos to focus on creating more diversity and inclusion in entertainment and beyond. The group included Obama-era national security advisor Susan Rice, actor and activist Riz Ahmed, playwright Young Jean Lee, and attorney and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, whose memoir “Just Mercy” is being adapted into a Warner Bros. Pictures film starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

The group in attendance got a brief glimpse at the movie, based on Stevenson’s life as a lawyer fighting for social justice, which Ford Foundation president Darren Walker called “an extraordinary gift to the nation.” Stevenson, who spoke passionately and at length about the disproportionate incarceration rates among women and African Americans, the inequalities in the justice system, and the need to enact change, received a standing ovation from the crowd.

Jordan, Foxx, Stevenson and “Just Mercy” director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton were present for a panel on the film. Cretton said the book opened his eyes to a subject that he didn’t think about very much.

“You feel it when Bryan speaks,” he said. “When Bryan walks off the stage, you should feel depressed, with the amount of terrible information he just poured on you. But this book did that and left me feeling so inspired and so connected to both the author of the book and the people (whose lives) he was sharing.”

Jordan, who said he was nervous about playing Stevenson on screen and “didn’t want to mess this up,” made a powerful impression on those on set during a key courtroom scene, said his co-star Foxx.

Foxx said he texted Jordan after they filmed the scene: “The extras in the fourth row are weeping.”

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