“A Journal for Jordan” is a story of love lost and found.
Directed by Denzel Washington, the film tells the real story of former New York Times senior editor Dana Canedy (played by Chanté Adams) and First Sergeant Charles Monroe King’s (Michael B. Jordan) unlikely love affair.
“Dana just knew she wasn’t going to end up with somebody like Charles,” said Adams. “That was not the man that she had painted in her imagination of who her future husband and father of her child was going to be. But they loved each other despite their differences. Their connection was magnetic, and eventually she had to give into that and it was probably the best decision she’s ever made.”
King, a decorated soldier, started recording guidance and advice for his infant son in a 200-page journal shortly before being deployed in 2006 to Iraq, where he was killed by an improvised explosive device.
Canedy chronicled the experience in a 2007 New York Times essay and later a book, “A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor,” in part to help heal from the loss. Having that effort come full circle in a film, in theaters this Christmas, is gratifying, she says.
“Back when I was writing the book, part of the reason I did it was to help me get through grief,” said Canedy, now the senior vice president of Simon & Schuster. “I had to find some positive way to channel the pain. Now I don’t so much focus on the healing as I do just the pride I have that I get to share Charles with the world. It’s funny, women all over the world are telling me they’ve fallen in love with Charles, which makes me smile and I know would make him blush from above.”
The Times caught up with Canedy, Adams and Washington to discuss the 13-year journey to bring the story to the screen.
How did this movie come about?
Washington’s producing partner, Todd Black, bought the rights to the book and article in 2008 before it was published and enlisted Virgil Williams as screenwriter.
“When Todd and Virgil handed me that script, I was like ‘Wow,’” said Washington. “I could see a film. And we already knew that we were going with Michael B. Jordan. We’d seen him in ‘Fruitvale Station’ and Todd and I both really loved him. It was really just a matter of trying to find [an actress to play] Dana.”
Canedy had input from the very beginning, working closely with Williams to get the details of the story right. “We went through every single page of the script,” she said. “Denzel asked me questions regularly [over] the last couple of years: ‘What color was Charles’ car? Tell me about the first time you guys went on a date. What was it like when he came home from Iraq to meet his son?’”
“Between 2008 and 2018 was a period of trying to develop the screenplay to get it to a place that felt comfortable,” Washington said. “And that was really Todd Black doing that. He [and] Virgil brought me a script in 2018 that I was moved by, which led me to want to direct the film.”
“I still have pictures of Denzel holding Jordan on the set of his [‘The Taking of Pelham 123‘] movie when Jordan was 3 years old,” said Canedy of their first meeting. “So he knew me and my son not just as characters but as real people. And he got to know Charles as a real person through us.”
What made Michael B. Jordan the right person to play Charles?
“He’s an amazing actor but [he and Charles] also look a lot alike,” said Canedy. “And in talking to him before we started shooting, I realized wow, to everybody else he’s this big movie star but he’s also a nice, decent man and he’s sweet and humble and he’s a gentleman. I feel like he was just singularly right for this project and I feel very deeply that God led all of us to this.”
“Michael was such a generous and supportive scene partner,” said Adams. “The first day I showed up to set, he was like, ‘Just so you know, this is your movie and I’m supporting you.’ And just to hear that from Michael B. Jordan, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, was so reassuring and spoke to the kind of man that he is.”
What made Chanté Adams the right person to play Dana?
“She’s the only person to play me,” said Canedy. “There’s no one else for this role.”
Canedy and Washington auditioned something like 200 actresses for the role. “And he kept saying, ‘I’ll know her when I see her,’” she said.
“[Then] he called me one day and said, ‘Open your computer,’” she remembered. “And I said, ‘I’m in the supermarket.’ And he said, ‘Well, go home, open up your computer and type in this name: Chanté Adams.’”
“Her picture popped up on the screen and I was like, ‘Well, she certainly looks like me from that period, 15, 20 years ago.’ And I looked at her bio and she’s classically trained and won a Sundance award. And I thought, ‘She certainly has the skills.’ And then in talking to her I realized she also had the heart and was a faithful person, and when you combine all of that, there’s no one else for this role.”
“We started speaking right after I got the role,” said Adams. “My anxiety was through the roof. I was so scared to speak with her the first time, just because I knew the weight that this story held. But from that first phone call, she was like, ‘I’m so happy that you’re here. Nobody else can do this. This is you, this is me, and we’re going to do this together.’ And she held my hand through the entire process.
“I was trying to be polite so I only called her like once every three weeks at first,” Adams added. “But then by the time we started filming, we got so close I was like, ‘Girl, what you doing? I [have] some questions.’ And she would pick up no matter the time, no matter what she was doing, just to help guide me along through the process.”
“Now she’s family, that’s my little sister,” said Canedy of the actress. “She really brought her heart and soul to this. And Mike as well. The first day I was on set, I brought a duffel bag of things — so he wore Charles’ actual dog tags that day, he held the actual journal and he saw the outfit that Jordan wore to his father’s funeral. All of this made the experience very personal for everybody involved, and because of that you see palpably in their performances a love story like no other.”
How did the actors flesh out the romantic aspects of Dana and Charles’ relationship?
Washington gave the actors free rein to discover the emotional truth of Canedy and King’s relationship on their own. “That’s the actors’ work, and they did a great job,” he said. “And Chanté was on the phone with Dana [often], I mean they’re close-close. I know they both did extensive research with Dana.”
“They had this unbelievable chemistry [that] was really palpable on set,” said Canedy. “And so that helped them to really capture the passion that Charles and I shared. But they also captured the humor just because they were playful with each other on set. I think they came to really respect one another as actors and as people. It’s a very personal experience to shoot a movie like this and I think they helped each other through the difficult scenes.”
“I would call [Dana] the night before I had to shoot anything that was really big and she graciously walked me through every moment,” said Adams. “Even the very hard ones that she doesn’t like to talk about, she was very open with me. But it wasn’t just about the sad moments, it was also the happy moments too. I wanted to know what it was about Charles that she fell in love with and so just being able to hear that from her mouth really aided in the process for both Michael and I.”
What was it like working with Denzel Washington to tell this story?
The chance to work with Washington is what initially drew Adams to the audition for the role. “That was probably the first thing that attracted me, because the script was shrouded in secrecy throughout the audition process,” she said. “So I didn’t really know about the story until further down the line, but I knew about the caliber of work that Denzel attaches himself to and I knew I wanted to learn from him and study under him.
“Denzel is the best director I’ve ever had,” she added. “He just knows how to communicate with his actors. It was an amazing experience being able to learn from him.”
“The Denzel Washington that I know is a friend,” said Canedy. “And obviously we all know him to be a brilliant moviemaker, [but] he’s also a man of faith, a family man. And knowing that made me incredibly comfortable [putting] my life and my Charles’ life story in his hands … I tell him all the time I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life.”
How does Jordan feel about the movie?
“He is so proud,” said Canedy. “He’s proud of his parents. Watching him grow into this young man just fills me with pride. The parts of Charles that everybody talks about were his humble spirit and soul. He’s giving, he’s loving [and] that’s Jordan. He stands soldier straight like his dad when he walks. I catch a glimpse of that sometimes and I think, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s growing into his father.’ I think Charles would be very proud.”
Why is now the right time for this story?
“Because we need love in this world,” said Adams. “And there’s so much love in this movie. It’s not just romantic love — we see platonic love, familial love, the love between the mother and her son and even between a father and his son [both] while he’s here and when he’s gone. Going through a pandemic, we need as much love as we can get right now.”
“I think it’s just a beautiful love story,” said Washington. “And it’s about a real hero who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. It’s about love lost, service and honor. This is a real hero, a real gentleman. A man who sacrificed it all and loved harder than most. She’s kept him alive and hopefully in a small way we have too.”
“I think [the movie] is a testament to the enduring power of love,” said Canedy. “Even though there are parts of the movie that are sad, it’s also funny and joyous watching these characters, who happen to be me and my Charles, fall in love.
“You can’t love this hard and not feel the loss equally hard when it happens,” she added. “But I also think the movie is about resilience and hope and optimism. We are not victims or tragic figures. I had this incredible love that produced this amazing child — and to be able to share the story of patriotism, Black fatherhood, honor, dignity and love is a blessing.”