Jesse Williams Reveals "Social Justice" Motivations Behind His Spot for Cannabis Dispensary

Spike Jonze and Jesse Williams BTS - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of MedMen

"The New Normal," Spike Jonze’s new two-minute spot for cannabis dispensary MedMen, opens with a shot of a museum-style installation. Behind the glass and above the title of the piece, “George Washington’s Hemp Farm,” actor and activist Jesse Williams stands with one foot on a bail of grass, his hand raised to the sky clutching a perfectly shaped marijuana leaf.

Williams — beloved by Grey's Anatomy fans for his work as Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC's long-running smash and praised for his social justice activism — plays Washington in a traditional uniform, white tights and a white wig. "Back in the day, George and a few of our founding fathers had hemp farms," Williams says in a voiceover as the camera zooms in on him quickly before scanning the farm, where three farm workers of color tend to the crop. All the scenes are static — there's no movement from the actors, yet the images do project strength backed by a clear message. "The president grew his own. Look it up. It was normal. But you know what isn't normal? America's 80 years of unjust prohibition." 

Jonze, who shot FKA Twigs for Apple's HomePod, Margaret Qualley for fashion house Kenzo and, most recently, Idris Elba for Squarespace, then swings his camera from the hemp farm to an adjacent set showing a street scene with cops, concerned bystanders and a man being arrested over the hood of a police car. The camera never slows down as the next focus becomes another set, a courtroom this time, and there's Williams again. He looks upset and he's locked in a tight embrace with a woman — presumably they are the parents of a young black man being led out of court in handcuffs. 

Those 80 years fly by and before it's all over, Williams will have played a cop, a hippie drummer and a barefoot and bespectacled man in the suburbs, each frozen in time and proving to be unmistakable examples of America's complicated relationship with weed. “A symbol of counterculture is just…culture,” says Williams, tying it together at the end. “Here’s to the new normal.”

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Williams by telephone during a break from Grey's Anatomy on the Friday before the Oscars to chat about the ad. His "The New Normal" spot debuted Feb. 24 on YouTube and, according to MedMen, will be pushed out through "an expansive 360-degree campaign aimed toward the modern consumer, including connected TV networks (Dish, Bravo, Discovery Channel, IMDB, Entertainment Weekly and Food Network), out of home assets in multiple states, print ads (in GQ, Rolling Stone, US Weekly) Sirius XM (voiced by Andy Cohen), native integrations with Complex, podcasts and terrestrial radio, digital, preroll and programmatic ads." (It's also embedded below.) Cannabis advertisements are still banned on network television. 

Williams says he signed on to the project before Jonze came on board, doing so after he investigated MedMen, its mission, activities, social corporate responsibility arm and vision "for not only the content but the scope of the work" company executives were looking to accomplish. "I found it to be really compelling and a nice way in to offer an accessible analysis of the raging hypocrisy of the hyper-criminalization and biased enforcement of the war on drugs," Williams explains. "[The spot] gives context and provides a sense of how we got here."

How Jonze and Williams arrived at the finished product was through a true collaboration, Williams notes. They worked on the script, workshopped set pieces, rehearsed scenes and became true partners. "It was a super collaborative experience. I have opinions, particularly when it comes to things that I care about. He solicited my ideas and vision to make something responsible," he adds.

They did so by staffing the short with artists, production crew and catering staff who had all been incarcerated or negatively impacted by "predatory drug laws." While the scenes together tell a story, it was the action in the first three pieces Williams says "really did it for me." 

"It starts on the plantation. You'll notice that those folks farming on the plantation are enslaved people and this is the man on our dollar bill, with his name on schools and universities. We start without sound or context and the image is a very patriotic reference. We know his posture, this garb, this hairstyle. You start to listen. It allows us to have the widest birth so the message can be received and offer context on things this 'hero' was doing," Williams explains of the opening shot. "Then it takes you into something that was part of the fabric of our economy and goes right into the abject terror of possession arrests, '80s and '90s police harassment and onwards. Then takes you to a place when black and brown bodies are being put in cages. The first three slides touched something for me. It's not to point a finger per se, but to illustrate some of the realities." 

As part of the collaboration with MedMen, Williams appears on the cover of the dispensary's Ember magazine, volume 4, free to customers with purchase. In the spread, he also opens up about the company's first commercial. What he doesn't talk about so much is how much fun he had moving from scene to scene while filming. "A lot of this was done in one take, so I would run down, rip off this breakaway outfit, run around the camera to get in position," he reveals. "We rehearsed that a lot and got the timing down. It was like the Olympic trials and very aerobic." 

He said they worked with the iconic Western Costume Company on custom Velcro breakaway pieces that allowed for quick changes from one scene to the next.

With the commercial spot, Williams becomes one of the first Hollywood stars to attach his name to a cannabis dispensary in a formal partnership. He was quick to point out that he is not concerned what people think of that distinction. "I don't operate from fear that way," he says. "I'm reflective and I have an investigatory approach in what we're encouraging, which is a real conversation about public health and safety in America, and the adjudication of its laws in a non-racist, anti-black and anti-poor manner. It has been proven time and time again that the United States is not willing to do that."

He continues: "I come at this from a social justice angle.... That’s where my brain goes and my heart and spirit go. It is not about being scared what fans think, what people I don’t know think, or what people who aren't interested in my freedom or well-being think."