5 Black TV creatives on the challenges and power of capturing police brutality and Black humanity on screen

  • Hollywood has recently faced criticism for its disproportionate focus on cops and crime amid the nearly two months of nationwide protests sparked by the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. 
  • Despite numerous TV franchises built around pro-cop programming, the last decade has seen Black showrunners, writers, directors, and executive producers take the lead in addressing America's issues of systemic racism and police brutality. 
  • Five Black creatives spoke to Business Insider about crafting storylines around police brutality on TV — from working in predominantly white spaces and mining their own trauma to illustrating the "absurdity" of racism and whether there's a right time to do these stories. 
  • Following the nationwide protests, all five Black TV creatives offered one way the small screen can leverage its visibility to move forward the larger cultural conversation about America's anti-Black policing past and present. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In 1992, NBC's "A Different World" covered the decision to acquit four Los Angeles police officers on trial for the vicious beating of Rodney King — an attack caught on camera by a civilian — and the days of deadly riots that followed.

During the two-part episode, "Honeymoon in LA," Whitney Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) wanders an electronics store as footage of the LAPD officers' trial appears on a sales floor TV. As Gilbert tries to comprehend the lack of justice, another Black woman in the store delivers a tragic yet familiar sentiment: "They can beat us, kill us, do whatever they want to do, and get off," she says. "Just like they always have." 

Nearly two decades later, a civilian filmed a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for more than eight minutes before he died in police custody. With no immediate action brought against the four officers involved, George Floyd's death — alongside the more recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Amaud Arbery, and others — ignited protests in Minneapolis that quickly spread throughout the country and eventually around the world.

The marches against police brutality and systemic racism have persisted, even in the face of local departments' aggressive responses. In addition to local authorities across the country using tear gas, pepper spray, tasers, and batons on protesters, in at least one city, unidentified federal law enforcement is driving around in unmarked cars and detaining people without explanation. Activists not regularly on the streets have pivoted the fight to State Houses, City Halls, and community board meetings. There they hold public officials' feet to the fire over years of billion-dollar police budgets amid diminishing funding for social services. 

In Hollywood, Black talent has followed the lead of on-the-ground Black Lives Matter activists. A letter first published by Variety featured more than 300 Black artists and executives asking Hollywood to divest from police and anti-Black content. The letter followed public criticism over cop-centric series, including the now canceled A&E show "Live PD," which reportedly filmed a Black man's death while in police custody. It also raised questions about the "more than 60% of prime-time dramas" on NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX focused on "crime, the police, and the legal system" during the fall 2019 TV season, according to racial justice organization Color Of Change.

When TV writers make their full return post-pandemic production delays, it's likely — as was the case with "A Different World" — that some will tackle the civil unrest of the past two months. Like the protesters, they will tell their stories to executives and viewers amid a shift in public opinion around the unequal treatment of Black Americans face in almost every aspect of their daily lives.

They will also have the shows of Black creators such as "Shots Fired" executive producers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood and "Dear White People" creator Justin Simien as examples of how to go chart their own story. While getting these conversations on-air was often a complex process, the storylines of those like "Scandal" writer Zahir McGhee and "The Carmichael Show" co-creator Willie Hunter have opened the doors for more direct conversations about civil rights and racism in American society on TV. Their labor was not only creative but professional and personal, a dedicated effort to have difficult discussions when fewer were willing to listen. 

During this wave of societal and industry reflection, Business Insider spoke to all five of the aforementioned Black artists about telling the difficult reality of police brutality, the feelings around their work remaining distressingly relevant, and how they want television to progress post-this moment of protest.  

Zahir McGhee, producer and writer for "Scandal" on "The Lawn Chair" 

After a 17-year-old Black boy is shot and killed by a white officer, his father arrives at a crowded and chaotic scene and declares he won't leave until he's brought the cop who shot his son. When Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is called in to help the police manage the shooting's optics, she finds herself questioning which side of the police line she's on. 

With a plot that echoed elements of Michael Brown's murder, "The Lawn Chair" was a dramatically different experience from Zahir McGhee's past attempts at tackling police brutality. "I tried to do a police shooting episode on my first show in 2012 — I was just a story editor — and there was no one else in the room that looked like me," the former "Scandal" writer said. "So, there was just no way that that was going to happen."

Led on screen and off by two prominent and powerful Black women, Washington's Olivia Pope and "Scandal" showrunner Shonda Rhimes, McGhee composed the episode. And this time, he was in a room with several Black writers. That helped shape a number of the episode's most significant moments, including its hopeful ending and the heartbreaking final image of a murdered teen — a different conclusion than a proposed last shot of Olivia returning home for the first time after her kidnapping. 

"One of the writers, Matt Byrne, was like, 'This is about this kid. We have to end on the shot of this kid being zipped up in the body bag because that's what this is about,'" McGhee recalled. "That's the thing about working in a diverse writer's room. You can get to really nuanced conversations if you have more than one Black person." 

Part of those nuanced conversations involved Pope alongside Black activists, protesters, officers, and parents, navigating a policing system where everyone from union leaders to street cops is whiter than the populations they serve and often live outside the city they work in. McGhee says that while he's frequently asked about the difficulty of composing the white cop's racist rant, what he's most proud of in "The Lawn Chair" is Pope's clash with an activist, and eventually, her decision to cross the police line to stand with protestors.

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"It was the first time that we acknowledged Olivia's Blackness to the world," McGhee said. "She had mentioned it before, but here was [Marcus Walker (Cornelius Smith, Jr.)], calling her out for the truth, which is, 'You're down here and saying you're down, but the reality is you've spent all your time and money protecting rich white people.'" 

Having an inclusive room strengthened the writing process, but it didn't make it any less complicated. The timing of the episode, in particular, was an issue both the writers and viewers wrestled with. "I think we considered bailing out of this episode timing-wise a couple of times," McGhee said. "You want to do justice by it, but you don't know if this is the right time. Is the right time when it's not happening in the world, or is the right time when it's happening in the world?"

Questions around timing weren't just about when it aired, either. "The Lawn Chair" featured several complex issues edged within a structure of multiple, fast-paced storylines. Because of the "Scandal" format and where it aired, the conversation had to be open and shut in a single "very special" episode. In broadcast, McGhee said, studios and networks are reluctant to explore current events more than once or within a prolonged storyline. That means the long-term ramifications often remain unexplored, and decisions around who and what is focused on become bastardized. 

"These are really challenging issues, and we're dealing with a lot of people in Hollywood who are very liberal and don't think that they are part of the problem," McGhee said. "And as storytellers, you often want to do what isn't seen on TV, so it's like, 'How do we make this a little bit different? Let's do the unexpected thing.' But we haven't seen the expected thing yet, and we haven't seen the outcome that we want."  

What Zahir McGhee wants to see:

"I remember the day of the Trayvon Martin verdict and just weeping hysterically. Then the Michael Brown thing happened, and you just think, 'How could this go on?' But this is the fear that Black people live in. So instead of one show when it matters, when are we going to take a bigger, deeper look at systems that are f—– up? A larger problem with television is that we only do these special topical episodes. We also fumble all over ourselves to show the humanity of police officers but only show the humanity of Black people when it's going to make us money. Why are 60% of shows on broadcast TV about police officers, and there are one or two dramas created on broadcast television about Black people?"

Justin Simien, writer, director and creator for "Dear White People" on "Chapter V"

After a white student says the N-word at a party next to Reggie (Marque Richardson), a fight breaks out, and the campus police are called. Upon arriving, a white officer demands to see Reggie's ID, but when the Black student questions why only he's being asked, the officer draws a gun on him in a moment that changes him and his friends forever. 

In 2018, a year after the first season of Justin Simien's "Dear White People" dropped on Netflix, a white Yale University student made headlines for calling campus police on a Black female graduate student napping in her dorm. A year later, a Black student on Columbia University's campus would be grabbed and pinned to the ground by school public safety officers after he declined to show his ID on the way to the library.  

Both of these incidents are deeply unnerving, but the circumstances around these escalations are also profoundly ridiculous. Simien poses that at the end of the day, that's what racism is. "It's completely absurd," Simien said. "When you objectively look at systemic oppression, based on the pseudoscience that people came up with, it's completely absurd that we are still in the grip of it." 

The writer-director's exploration of racist policing at Winchester, the fictional Ivy League campus Simien named in part after the guns "white colonizers used to subdue America's Indigenous population," was a scene cut from his 2014 crowd-funded film of the same name. Unable to direct "Chapter V" himself, Simien lobbied to install "Moonlight"'s Barry Jenkins in the director's chair. Jenkins' ability to "get very real, and raw actions out of people" was essential for an episode about the broken hearts of well-adapted Black people, Simien said. That includes people like Reggie, who appear fine on the outside, "but are struggling to keep it together in the face of systemic trauma." 

"I really wanted to address it in the show, and not just address it, but unpack how it happened and how essentially Black people are penalized for having very normal human reactions to their oppression," Simien said. 

Reggie's response at the party, and emotional breakdown after, would illustrate the alienation, fear, and trauma Black people regularly endure at institutions where armed security and off-duty officers are contracted to work. And while the party incident spoke volumes about learning and living while Black, Simien's exploration of Reggie's experience didn't end in "Chapter V."

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The ramifications of that terrifying encounter are explored through the rest of season one and season two, three, and four when it premieres. But Simien hasn't just tackled that fall out from Reggie's perspective. Later in season one, it's revealed that Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), the white boyfriend of "Dear White People"'s leading woman, Sam (Logan Browning), was the one who called the cops. It's among several moves white students made at the party that ultimately put Reggie and his Black peers in danger.

Gabe's storyline sees him fall into a guilt-driven depression before moving on to make a documentary about racism. For Simien, it was necessary to point out that those kinds of actions or reactions "actually don't solve [the problem] either." 

"One of the most insidious ways racism persists is among people who refuse to realize that their actions perpetuate racism because that doesn't reflect their feelings or intentions," Simien said. "That party scene is about this sort of unbearable white fragility, how that sort of turns into a situation that endangers someone's life. I wanted to unpack how the actions of a well-meaning, reasonable, white person can result in the same kind of [racist] outcome."

What Justin Simien wants to see:

"One thing that's been on my mind for a long time is the literal industry marketplace around Black tragedy. We are all very rightfully using the attention on this moment to push public policy and to push really important political movements. But then some people are selling advertising on news footage of cities on fire. There's the industry that crops up for both liberal and far-right media and all kinds of leaders who are using this moment as a time for productive change, but others who are using this to virtue signal how great they are. 

There are companies who are seizing on this the same way that they did with the COVID situation to 'stand in solidarity with Black people,' but without taking any personal responsibility or making any corporate changes. They're just buying advertising around Black death. That's something I would be interested in seeing unpacked in greater detail because it's insidious."

Willie Hunter, comedian, co-creator, and writer for "The Carmichael Show" on "Protest" 

It's Jerrod's (Jerrod Carmichael) birthday. When his girlfriend, friends, and family gather to celebrate, his not-so-surprise party ends up sidelined after several people leave to protest the killing of a Black man shot by police.  

In only its second-ever episode, "The Carmichael Show" took on protest following a year of protest spurred by the deaths of Black Americans like Eric Gardner and Michael Brown. It was just over a year before former quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the US national anthem. It was two years after Black women Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi launched the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. And it was five years before the current protest movement, which for many feels both achingly similar and radically different. 

Protests' intrinsic relationship to the modern civil rights and BLM movement made it a front-and-center issue in the conversation over police brutality. That meant it wasn't just on TV. It was being discussed at the dinner tables of white and Black Americans around the country. Five years later, many of those same conversations about constitutional rights, protest versus looting, and a lack of police prosecutions still sound the same.

"The Carmichael Show" co-creator Willie Hunter has noticed some changes, though. Alongside calls for justice and demands for reform, efforts to increase connection, healing, and love are increasingly centered at protests where "a lot more white people" are now visible, he said. Still, from some reactions on his social media, it's apparent protest remains something "a lot of people still see as a nuisance." 

"Jerrod had performed downtown in Los Angeles and seen a protest, and he goes, 'People have hacky sacks, they're grilling. This isn't a protest. This is like Bonnaroo. What is this?'" Hunter recalled. "The character Cynthia [played by Loretta Devine] protested in the '60s. There was no street corn. There was no hacky sacking. So on 'The Carmichael Show,' we wanted to bring that conversation into how you protest."

Much like the American public, the room didn't always see eye-to-eye on the issues. Rather than hinder them, Hunter said those kinds of disagreements let everyone lay bare their "ignorance" in an environment he called "very therapeutic." In a writer's room with Black creatives who have been racially profiled and handcuffed by Los Angeles police and followed by security guards in grocery stores, personal experiences served as the jumping point to illustrating how police killings and protests frequently serve as the backdrop to Black Americans' lives. On-screen, an all-Black cast had a timely conversation with zero white perspectives in the fictional room.

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"We're not telling anyone how to live their lives. We're not showing anyone what to do. We're just showcasing the different conversations," Hunter said. "These are the conversations that Black people have that I think a lot of white people don't realize we have. We're a little bit more colorful about it, but we talk about the same things." 

Practically no perspective on protesting was left out, but that created its own set of challenges on a sitcom where laughs are currency. With the help of academics and other experts, "The Carmichael Show" writers ultimately avoided comedy's potential to dismiss or diminish the issue by leaning into their living room. 

"If we show the outside of the protest, how people are scrambling out in the street, we couldn't write for someone who's not in the Carmichael family," Hunter said. "But if it's in someone's home, I think we can get more honest. If we show someone getting arrested, and then we're making jokes, we're making light of the situation. We would have cheapened the cause of the episode. So we got away with a lot of conversations because they were talking to themselves."

What Willie Hunter wants to see:

"For ['The Carmichael Show'''s] depression episode, I had to go through my own personal trauma for that. I could see people getting uneasy, talking about this over and over, but when we have these conversations, especially about things like police brutality, we have to keep talking about it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Moving forward, I think we want to veer back into hope but also be really honest."

Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, co-creators, directors, and executive producers for "Shots Fired"

Two Black DOJ agents — seasoned investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and rookie prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) — are called in to investigate the high-profile shooting of an unarmed white teen by a Black police officer in a North Carolina town. But once they begin their inquiry, they uncover connections between another, largely ignored, shooting of a local Black teen. 

Executive producers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood at Fox's "Shots Fired" 2017 FYC Event in North Hollywood, California.Amanda Edwards/WireImage/GettyImages

On the surface, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood's 10-part limited series "Shots Fired" sounds like a standard police brutality storyline — until you realize the victim is white and the cop is Black. 

"This was born out of the incredible feeling we had after Trayvon Martin's murder and George Zimmerman being let off," Prince-Blythwood said. "We realized that people weren't connecting with this young boy who was murdered, so we wanted to flip the narrative and allow white people to take the journey that we have to take way too often."

As part of its central storyline, the series connects the high-profile killing of a white teen to the police-involved shooting of a Black teen whose death received less attention after being swept under the rug. A study conducted by Harvard researchers found that in a range of major metropolitan areas between 2013 and 2017, Black people were 4.3 to 6.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white peopleIllustrating this was just as central to telling the "Shots Fired" story. 

"We wanted to deal with the murder of a young Black boy whose death goes completely ignored, covered up and buried, and show the disparity in how our deaths are handled," Rock Bythewood said. 

Using the premise of "'A Time to Kill'''s most famous scene," the story follows not just the police department and victims' families, but the actions of local activists, government officials, community members, and media, in addition to its leading DOJ agents. The agents, unlike similar shows, were both Black, something Prince-Bythewood said was an intentional decision to show Black people are "not a monolith." 

"That just speaks to the value of having people of color run shows that have to do with policing and law enforcement," Rock Bythewood told Business Insider. "Because we do bring a different point of view based on different experiences than maybe someone else, who might've had to do backflips to get to that place." 

To ensure their 360-look remained authentic on every level, front and behind-the-camera talent attended "Shots Fired University." The training involved intensive research and speaking to experts like former Attorney General Eric Holder, former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old police shooting victim at the center of Ryan Coogler's"Fruitvale Station." This helped prepare the show's racially diverse team of actors, writers, editors, and directors — half of whom were women — with delivering this complex story. 

"Authenticity was a huge part of the process with directing, with writing, with editing, because we approached it as giving a view from every seat in the house," Rock Bythewood said. 

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The result of that approach is perhaps best encapsulated in episode seven. As a Black local business owner sits inside his damaged store the morning after a police brutality protest turned into a riot, he quietly says, "We were fighting an enemy we couldn't see, and there was no way to win." He's recounting his time in the Vietnam War, but the line also speaks to how racism invisibly permeates every corner of society. With "Shots Fired," the Bythewoods' take full advantage of every production element to unpack an enemy many of us can't see. 

"It was important for the camera to often drift off of our main characters to capture what was really going on and what most people normally don't see," Prince-Bythewood said of the show's editing and cinematography. "We never allowed slow motion or high angle. We wanted to stay grounded and real, and to never feel like this was trying to create moments. We felt that that was the way to capture the visceral nature of what was going on in this town. The urgency, the underbelly of what was happening." 

The "Shots Fired" creators admit that telling the story from every perspective wasn't simple. Still, in the larger conversation, "it was better to be truthful about that instead of making it so easy," Prince-Bythewood said. 

"One of the hardest things, of course, is making a character you fundamentally disagree with," she continued. "It's very easy to write a character as a villain, but I think it's more important to humanize them because there are these cops out there that seemingly on the surface are fine people. Yet, you hear them in the quiet moments, as we heard in North Carolina. People on the surface that are 'fine people' can be harboring some really dangerous thoughts and feelings."

What Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood want to see from TV: 

"I don't think everything new that's being made needs to necessarily hit on the recent events of people being killed by police, but I really do think we should take on this whole idea that not everything needs to be filtered through the eyes of white storytellers," Rock Bythewood said. "I like the crime genre, but if it's going to be this genre, always showing the racist cop as a hero needs to stop. We also definitely want to remind people in our stories that it's not just Black men that are victimized, but women as well." 

"Ultimately, I really just want to see all of us writers doing our homework, rolling up our sleeves, challenging our own points of view so that we can authentically or organically put something out in the world that is moving things forward in a positive and progressive way," Prince-Bythewood said.

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