‘from nowhere’ is this year’s most pertinent teen movie

Director Matthew Newton’s new indie drama about undocumented teens in pursuit of the American Dream hits cinemas as Trump’s travel ban is stalled in courts. One of its young stars, J. Mallory McCree, talks to i-D about why he wants everyone to see it.

by Hannah Ongley
17 February 2017, 10:05pm

In 2015, when J. Mallory McCree first read a film script about undocumented teens seeking asylum in America, he hoped the film might screen in the White House. Then-president Obama was attempting to shield millions of undocumented Americans with a comprehensive reform of immigration policy, using a series of executive orders that would later be struck down by the Supreme Court. Under the current administration, things look even less hopeful for immigrants in pursuit of the American Dream. McCree, meanwhile, would probably have a better chance at appearing in the White House by auditioning for Finding Nemo 3.

From Nowhere takes a far less idealized approach to U.S immigration than the story of three fish scaling a tank wall at the Marine Life Institute. Its plot involves three undocumented high school students — Moussa (McCree), a Guinean Muslim with an overbearing mother; Sophie (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), a sassy Dominican neglected by own her relatives; and Alyssa (Raquel Castro), a straight-A student from Peru. The disparate histories of how they arrived in America, which the teens themselves start to unravel while seeking evidence to support their asylum cases, lay out the myriad obstacles by young people who only want a better life. "Genocide is good," their lawyer instructs in a case meeting as an example of good supporting evidence that returning to their birth countries would spell disaster. "Genital mutilation is better. Dictators are the best." Moussa, Sophie, and Alyssa simultaneously struggle with the everyday problems of adolescence and politics of high school.

As From Nowhere opens in cinemas during what couldn't be a more important time, we talk to McCree — who has also appeared on Homeland and Quantico — about the hierarchies of privilege and giving a voice to people who are afraid for their lives.

How was this film different to what you've done in the past?
It was a lot more intimate. TV work is always a lot faster, and it's always on this huge scale. The luxury of being in an indie film is that you get to take your time to tell the story. It was a lot more precious, and Matt allowed us to talk it through. He was very collaborative. Especially dealing with three minorities as the leads of the film, he listened to us. We got a chance to improvise and just be as organic as possible.

Did you know much about immigration and deportation before filming?
No, not at all. Obviously you know that undocumented immigrants exist, but you don't really know until you know. I read the script in one sitting, and as soon as I read it, I was like, "I have to be a part of this. I have to tell this story." It just resonated with me on many deep levels. One, because I'm already a black minority in this country, but then it helped me explore what it's like to be stripped of privilege even further. It helped me learn that there are certain privileges I have the luxury of having just being an American. These kids can't call the cops if something were to happen to them. They can't call to go to the hospital and be taken care of.

One scene that appears particularly pertinent — not just for immigrants — is when Moussa gets into a fight and is being profiled by the cops, who are suspicious of both his skin color and his name.
Oh yeah. In that scene you have the white cop and the black cop. Looking at today's political climate between cops and black men, that could have gone so many different ways. And kudos to Matt for having the black cop give Moussa the pass. Had it been the white cop, it would have been a whole different story. Which is unfortunate — we should all be protected and served, and we should have some kind of compassion for one another, whether you're the cop or just a civilian.

You grew up in Detroit before spending time in LA and then New York. How has moving around the U.S. shaped your perception of politics in this country?
You say the word "Detroit," and everyone has an opinion about it. Detroit has a lot of history, let's just start there. I was fortunate enough not to live the typical Detroit lifestyle. My mom is a teacher, and my father is a police officer. Thanks to them, I was sheltered, but they also made me aware of my surroundings. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, and I grew up among black doctors and black lawyers, and black politicians. It wasn't until I actually left Detroit that everything that people think about Detroit sort of came into my consciousness. Because I now have the opportunity to travel, I see problems with education, problems with water — it's ridiculous. I need to go and put back into my community. You can't just take from a community and then leave it. You always have to give back.

You've been going to a lot of the anti-Trump marches — for women, for immigrants — and speaking out on Twitter. Why is it important to you to speak on issues that may not appear to concern you directly?
Art is a reflection of our society. When I knew that I wanted to be an actor, and became more specific about what kind of actor I wanted to be, I wanted to be an actor who spoke truth and purpose and meaning, and opened up the conversation. Not only do I do this in my art, but I like to be a reflection as a person, as J. Mallory-McCree in real life. It's important because ultimately we are all created equal. I don't understand why it's so hard to have compassion and actually have human rights. I have plans to go and support the Dakota Pipeline protests. It's kind of absurd, the time we live in, and I never thought that I would live in a period like this. Things have progressed, and I realize that I stand on the shoulders of so many people who have led us to the point where we are. It's my duty as an actor and as a human being to continue to progress with this, and support all human rights.

You hear so much these days about something or someone being American or un-American. Did becoming Moussa make you feel any more or less American, or perhaps think about the frailty of that concept?
It did not make feel more or less American. If anything, we need to get back to what this country was supposed to stand for originally. Back to the declaration of independence, and to the constitution. We are all created equally, and this administration needs to stop thinking that it can only be about America. It's bigger than us. Ultimately we should all be working together collectively so that we can create a better society around the world. Look at the Women's March and the powerful images that came from all over the world — in Kenya, and in Israel, in New York City, in L.A. We need to come together as a world. "America first" — what do we need to be first at? 


Text Hannah Ongley
Images courtesy of FilmRise

From Nowhere
j. mallory-mccree