How Jesse Williams Helped MedMen Craft the First Cannabis Commercial

Behind-the-scenes documentary shows work to contextualize the history of marijuana

Williams took on a number of roles for MedMen's ad. MedMen
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This February, MedMen released the first commercial for cannabis. The two-minute spot, a collaboration between director Spike Jonze, actor Jesse Williams, MedMen’s internal creative team and creative shop Mekanism, chronicled the history of cannabis, documenting everything from George Washington to criminalization to the future prospect of cannabis as a burgeoning industry.

Today, the company released a 10-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that not only tells the story of the ad, but also the story of the military veterans featured in the spot and what marijuana means to them. Adweek spoke with Williams ahead of the release of the documentary to learn more about his involvement and why he wanted to be a part of it.

“It really stems from legalization—really I should say the hypercriminalization and the selective criminalization of marijuana as a social justice issue for me,” said Williams of his decision to work with MedMen. “I saw a company looking to think creatively about how to address not only their own market share and their own ventures while acknowledging the climate that they’re in—[that was] not just pretending that we dropped down and we got a new product for sale.”

But first, Williams thoroughly researched the company and the project to make sure it would be a responsible choice.

“This is a project about contextualizing and looking directly in the face and naming the history of marijuana criminalization in this country,” Williams said. “[It shows the history] full circle, from forcing Africans to grow it to throwing them in cages for having it in their pocket. I looked at message and messenger and made a decision based on the value, the value add and the takeaway.”

Williams joined the project before Jonze did. He worked closely with MedMen’s creative team to craft the narrative, and once Jonze came aboard, Williams and Jonze worked in concert, writing and rewriting the copy and crafting dioramas to figure out how they could tell a story.

Williams said Jonze had “a lot of humility” when it came to social justice and Williams’ work in that area. Williams brought in the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which works to help people who are incarcerated get education and training so it’s less likely they end up back in prison, to bring another perspective to the project.

“We learned to look at not just putting a cosmetic gauze on this story,” Williams said, “but also, who are impacted and if we’re going to be talking about the impact having those [who have been] impacted involved in the process.”

To do that, MedMen featured veterans whose lives have been changed by marijuana and made sure to hire crew whose lives had been impacted by cannabis.

“You notice we’re very selective and deliberate about our casting and hiring, both behind the camera and on camera, really demonstrating being responsible and accurate about people of color, the black people being negatively impacted and preyed upon by the so-called war on drugs and having their lives uprooted,” Williams said.

He continued: “If you snap one person out of their community, you’re not only impacting them but their family, their parents, their wives, their husbands, their sons, their community at large. I’ve used this as an opportunity to creatively put a lens on something that is sometimes viewed as academic or uninteresting but is really the pervasive violence in the American community that needs to be acknowledged if we’re going to talk about how we can high five each other and go buy weed legally.”

Williams believes other marketers in the space will need to work to be “a meaningful part of the trajectory of narrative-making around this and other issues.”

“It is not OK to have the missionary mentality anymore,” he said. “It is not OK to think you can just plop in and colonized a topic and culture and aesthetic. It doesn’t require much and it certainly enriches the process to acknowledge, be humble and include the work that was done to get you there.”

@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.