Dana Canedy on Faith, Love and A JOURNAL FOR JORDAN – Nell Minow interviews
The title of the book and movie is A Journal for Jordan, but it is really two journals. First Sgt. Charles Monroe King was deployed in Iraq when his son, Jordan, was born, and so his fiancée, Dana Canedy, gave him a journal to give him a connection to the son he would see just once before he was killed in action. When she received the journal with his effects, Canedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, shared her own story, with selections from King’s journal, framing each chapter as a letter to their son. The movie based on her book, directed by Denzel Washington, is a story of love and loss. In an interview, Canedy talked about the unlikely romance between a very cosmopolitan, ambitious New York Times journalist and a quiet soldier with a passionate commitment to defending his country.
NELL MINOW: When you first spoke to Denzel Washington about making the film, what did you tell him you were looking for from the movie?
DANA CANEDY: He’s the best at what he does. And so really, the only thing I wanted to emphasize is that there was a real Jordan behind the Journal for Jordan, a boy who lost his father and that we just really needed to keep that in mind. While much of moviemaking is about characters, we are real people.
NM: I’m sure you did not see a lot of Black love stories on screen when you were growing up, but we have had some exceptional ones in the past few years.
DC: I didn’t see a lot of it at all. And even now, it’s fairly rare to see a Black love story. But I think, first and foremost, this is an American love story. And then it’s a Black love story, in that order, and that’s how people are receiving it. And I’m really grateful for that. So much of what we see in portrayals of Black families is negative. And so, I’m really honored that audiences are responding so well to a story about not just a Black family but a Black patriot, and hero who died for our country. And that makes me very proud.
NM: You are quite frank in your book that it was an improbable relationship. You were very different. So tell me what were the similarities that really connected you?
DC: I think the similarities are — it’s funny I still talk about him in the present tense. I don’t know whether to say are or were – our faith.
And we had this incredible respect for each other that was something we shared. Even though I really did have to grow into the relationship. I had to mature into it. And I think he did as well in some ways. Me more so than him. But I do believe that God was at the center of our relationship.
I could not even imagine when I met him that it was going to lead to all this. That I would be there with him by side as his partner through the war, and through the end of his life that contributed to the fact that he died a very happy man. Not everybody can say that. I could not imagine that this movie would be made and that my book that would not just preserve his legacy but also teach lessons about patriotism, and resilience. And so I’m grateful for all that. I really am.
NM: You have said that you learned things about him from the journal that you didn’t know, as close as the two of you were. What made it possible for him to be open in the journal in a way that he wasn’t able to be in person?
DC: The fact that he was writing to his son, and he was writing from a war zone, so he knew there was a chance he wouldn’t make it home. As much as he was looking forward to coming home. That meant that he was trying to include whatever he wanted to say to our son. And so on the last page, he wrote a letter that said, “This is everything I could think of to teach you to be a man if I don’t make it home.”
He was writing at a time in his life where he was looking forward to this new life that was coming into the world but also watching soldiers die really focused him in terms of writing what was important and stripping away anything that wasn’t. That’s what makes the journal so powerful. Also, I don’t think he realized he was writing themes throughout the journal that emerged. I don’t think that was on purpose. But when I read it, it very clear what the themes were. They were his love of God, his absolute pride, and dedication in military service. His utter profound respect for women, and the fact that he expected Jordan to respect women. And his love for me. Those are the four themes that came through over and over in in the journal.
NM: How did you grow into the relationship?
DC: I had come up through a military family where I didn’t see a lot of examples of good relationships where there were strong women who had their own careers and a voice in their relationship. And so I was afraid of being involved in a committed relationship, certainly one with a military man. And he put in the time. I broke up with him a couple times, and he kept coming back. He took the time for me to really trust him, and believe that he was going to stay. I have always been confident professionally but not very confident in my personal life. So I didn’t think this good man was really going to want me long-term. And he just proved time and time and time again that he did. And ultimately I believed it and fell in love with him. And by then we knew each other as friends, we trusted each other, we respected each other. That’s the best kind of relationship. And in fact, right now I’ve women all over the country trying to make a hashtag go viral, #findyourcharles. And the meaning behind that is don’t settle. Wait for your Charles.
NM: What did the two of you laugh at together?
DC: Oh, my gosh, so much. He was more serious than I am. And so we laughed a lot at the difference between Charles the soldier and Charles my man. For example, he was revered and respected, and so forth. He was commanding. But he was also the same guy at home who had flecks of gray in his mustache that I used to color in with my mascara wand. And after he died when I was interviewing some of the soldiers for my book, they said, “Ma’am we never met that guy.” So we would laugh about the fact that he was a teddy bear with me but he was this leader whose soldiers would be surprised to see at home.
NM: You can see the home side of him in his artwork.
DC: Yes, absolutely. In fact, there’s a picture in the movie that is actually his, a framed picture of an angel prince. That’s actually his. That’s the original. So he drew children, he drew old men, he drew me. His sensitive side really did come out with his amazing art.
NM: And where do you see him in Jordan?
DC: Jordan is an old soul like his dad. He’s humble. He’s kind. In fact, this will tell you everything you need to know about Jordan. He hadn’t told anybody up until a few weeks ago about the movie or that he knew Michael B. Jordan or Denzel, that Denzel was his “Uncle D.” And the first time we were going to the set to watch the filming I said, “Jordan I’ll call your teachers and let them know you won’t be there today.” He said, “Mom, I don’t want to miss Algebra.” And I said, “Jordan, you nerd.” And I laughed. So he would only come for his lunch hour and then went back to school.
NM: The impression I got from the book was that the heart of First Sgt. King’s sense of patriotism was about the people in his unit that he was working with as exemplifying what he was protecting.
DC: That’s exactly right. I never heard him say weapons of mass destruction or Axis of Evil or any of those things that the politicians were talking about back then as justification for the war. For him, he said, “Dana these soldiers I’m taking over there,” and he personally trained them, some of them were in high school and gone to their prom the year before. He said, “I gotta get them ready, and I got to bring them home.” And that was his mission. That’s why he was there. That and then on a macro level the fact that he really believed in protecting our Constitution, and our ideals of Americans. Protecting our right to love each other, fight with each other, and everything in between. And so that’s why I do think this will be a reminder of American patriotism. And it should be a reminder that we are in the United States of America. And if we cannot live up to that ideal then we should change our name.
NM: It’s very different to write about others as a journalist than it is to tell your own story.
DC: I knew I was the only national journalist in the country that had gotten that knock at the door, and you open it up and there are military officials standing there. They don’t even have to say a word; you know why they’re there. I wanted people to feel that. So in that way, I thought I was providing a service as a journalist by sharing our story.
The other thing though, is there are parts of the book that are deeply reported. There’s a chapter that reconstructs the last 24 hours of his life minute by minute. I had to put on a reporter’s hat for that, and report that out. The other thing about the book is that I did apply my journalistic training and ethics in various parts of it. So I made a very deliberate decision not to include my political views because I thought the message of the book about military families and the sacrifices they make would be lost if I did that. And so I had to walk a balance between opening up my personal story, and applying my journalistic training principles, standards, and ethics as I wrote it.
NM: What was it like for Jordan to see the movie?
DC: He is very proud of his parents. He’s really proud of the movie. But there are some difficult moments. And I remember sitting with him, Denzel came to New York to show it to us privately first. And I went to Jordan right before some of the difficult scenes and said, “Jordan, do you want to cover your eyes for this?” He said, Mom, it’s just Michael B acting. It’s not my dad.” And I said okay. But the parts he did want to cover his eyes and ears for were the romance scenes. A 15-year-old boy doesn’t want to think about his parents being romantic. So that was funny to me.
NM: What do you hope people will talk about after seeing the movie?
I really believe that people will take from it what they need, depending on what’s going on in their lives. And there are different messages for different people in the movie. But I hope one of the things that they come away with is the sense that we’re not victims, and that we’re not tragic figures. That Jordan and I are happy now, we have a very full life. But we went through a very hard thing. And at the end of the day when you go through a tragedy, you can get to the other side of it and get back to a place of resilience and joy and happiness in time and with faith in my case. And I hope people will take that away from our movie. The other thing is, while as I said, there are some difficult moments, it’s also funny, it’s uplifting. I think it’s the perfect movie to see with family and friends during the holidays. Go in, see it with your family friends and come out and hug them tighter.