Behind ‘Grown-ish’s’ Black Lives Matter Storyline, Inspired by Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd
SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “A Boy is a Gun,” the fifth episode of “Grown-ish.”
Since its 2018 debut, Freeform’s “Grown-ish” has paid special attention to social issues presented through the lens of today’s college students. With the fifth and sixth episode of its fourth season, the Yara Shahidi starrer recreated last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and puts Zoey (Shahidi) and her friends at the center of the debate on how to meaningfully support — or critique — the movement.
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The special two-part arc kicked off Aug. 5 with a powerful half hour, titled “A Boy Is a Gun.” The episode opened with Doug (Diggy Simmons) out for an early morning jog with earbuds in, entering a convenience store for a quick drink before heading back to his dorm. As the character exits the store, police quickly approach with guns drawn, and a shot rings out. It’s a shocking moment — and a daring misdirect — as the audience learns that the unarmed Black man who was killed isn’t actually Doug, but another young man named Marcus.
The storyline emerged after the Feb. 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, based on an idea by “Grown-ish” writer and co-producer Des Moran. As celebrities and citizens posted “I Run with Ahmaud” on social media, and amid the early days of the pandemic, Moran was feeling fatigued.
“I was in a pretty dark space,” Moran tells Variety, detailing the episodes’ origins over Zoom alongside executive producer and the episodes’ director Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry and writer Wade Allain-Marcus, who penned Episode 406.
“Seeing all of the posts was, to me, so discouraging because I just felt like we were in this endless cycle where nothing ever changed,” Moran explains. “I felt traumatized every time I saw one of the posts. And I was really self-conscious about it.”
So, he decided to bring his internal debate about not participating in the social media campaign to the “Grown-ish” writers’ room.
“I was feeling like I was a bad Black person, like I wasn’t doing anything to help. But I also felt that I couldn’t emotionally handle participating anymore,” he admits. “I thought I was gonna get roasted in the room, honestly, and the conversations that came out of it were [that] everyone was feeling the same fatigue that I was feeling in different ways.”
With his questions affirmed by his colleagues, who were eager to debate their own stances, Moran began working on the story. Doug acted as a proxy for his own internal questions about how to engage with the protest movement, and the storyline originally ended with the character still feeling indecisive about how to engage. But when George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, everything changed.
“The last day of us outlining that episode was the day after George Floyd was murdered,” Moran recalls. “We ended up taking two weeks off from the room because we were all emotionally at our breaking point. And when we came back, we decided we needed to keep going with the story and make it a two-part episode.”
Allain-Marcus had already been tapped to write Episode 406 and, after the protests kicked off, he and the team poured their renewed energy into bringing the very debates going on in the “Grown-ish” writers’ room and with their friends at home to the screen.
“I had an infant child, so I wasn’t even able to go to those protests in the midst of COVID,” Allain-Marcus says. “So there was a moment with me on Zoom with friends playing poker and a friend of mine who happened to be white was like, ‘Yeah this is a big moment. But also, the looting though, right?’ And [my response] was just, ‘I gotta be honest, I don’t give a fuck about the looting.'”
When he shared that experience with the other writers, a debate opened up about how looting is problematic to the cause at large. The conversation made its way into the script, with Nomi (Emily Arlook) voicing her dismay over the loss of commercial goods, much to Jazz (Chloe Bailey) and Zoey’s disapproval.
“In traditional ‘Grown-ish’ fashion, we couldn’t just present something one-sided. We weren’t just going to make the easy point,” he continues. “And if we all agree, it’s not going into show, because what’s the point?”
Rice-Genzuk Henry recalls another debate over defunding the police. “I remember being like, ‘Fuck that, no. I want the police when I’m scared at night, who am I going to call?,'” she says. “And I remember [my colleagues explaining], ‘No, that’s where this term is problematic because we’re not saying abolish the police all together…”
“Well some of us were,” Allain-Marcus chimes in, before Rice-Genzuk Henry continues. “I don’t think there’s ever been a topic that’s come to the room where everybody is on the same page, which is great, because it creates so many different characters with different perspectives.”
And with these topics being explored in the show’s “Senior Year” season, Allain-Marcus believes the timing feels organic to the characters’ evolution over the years instead of shoehorned into the show.
“[They] were poised for this — ready to be in these storylines, and have these conversations,” he notes. “It was just the right time to move them in different directions to speak on things that they weren’t speaking on as clearly yet.”
Rice-Genzuk Henry praised Simmons’ performance in the largely Doug-centric arc, saying the storyline required the actor to push himself emotionally.
The director points to one sequence where Doug has a long monologue, breaking down his complicated experience and fears as a young Black man but then follows it up with his first kiss with Kiela (Danielle Perkins).
“It was a balance of trying to make both of those moments pop because you want to be crying for Doug about what’s going on, but then you also want to be like, ‘Oh shit, they’re kissing,'” Rice-Genzuk Henry explained. “I think he did an excellent job. He really just had to dig deep as an actor.”
The cast and crew could collectively feel the emotion from the first table read.
“Usually we don’t stick around and talk about it after, but I remember the cast taking a moment to thank all of us for digging in and writing [this],” Moran recalls. “Reading these episodes for the first time, everyone could tell in that moment how special they were going to turn out.”
Translating each episode from script to screen presented its own unique challenges. The aforementioned cold open for “A Boy Is a Gun,” after Tyler the Creator’s track, was particularly worrisome to Moran.
“It felt like one of the darkest things that we’d ever done on the show,” he says. “There was a lot of debate over the moment of the police officer raising the gun, [wondering] ‘How far are we actually going to take this?'”
Plus, he was writing from personal experience: “When I was just out of college, I went through a situation where I was out for a jog in broad daylight and the LAPD profiled me. They pulled their car up, got out, drew their guns, came and threw me on the ground.”
Like Doug, Moran was wearing headphones, so the interaction was particularly startling. “I was listening to some pop song and was having the most blissful day right before it happened,” he says.
To capture that tension, the creatives quickly decided that the sequence should have no dialogue and focus only on the visuals. Rice-Gazuk Henry used a GoPro style camera to capture the first-person perspective of the scene, cutting back and forth between those images and wide shots from a standard camera.
“I will admit that I was super scared of the 405 cold open,” Rice-Gazuk Henry says. “[I thought,] ‘We’ll see how this is gonna turn out in the editing bay.'”
The longtime “Grown-ish” producer was also under added pressure, since these two episodes were some of the first she’d directed for TV.
“We knew that these were the most special episodes that we were tackling, the most precious subject matter,” she says. “To the credit of Freeform and ABC Studios, and Julie Bean, Lina Wong and Michael Petok, they were nothing but supportive and trusting and got behind me when I was like, ‘I want to burn a police car.'”
In the cold open of the sixth episode, the cast is featured on the front lines of a campus protest. The episode is titled “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” based on the 1997 Busta Rhymes classic. Allain-Marcus chose the title as a bit of a play on words, inspired by “phrases that get thrown around during this time, like ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,'” he explains.
As the storyline continues on Aug. 12, the group of friends continue to debate their roles in the protest movement and how far some want to go. Doug, Kieala, Aaron (Trevor Jackson) and Luca (Luka Sabbat) hit the streets of Los Angeles to fight for racial justice and equality, despite the curfew enacted by the city. But while the real-life protests were marked by rubber bullets, police batons and tear gas, there was a real question about just how much of that brutalization to show on “Grown-ish.” The writers wanted things to be realistic, but how much could they get away with?
“Our show is very image driven. We’re always looking for a trying to be stylistic and stylish, and really, our show is aspirational,” Allain-Marcus adds. But “how do you make an aspirational episode when it comes to talking about how our lives are constantly threatened? There’s always beauty, especially with us, [so] how do we continue to capture that, even in the midst of tragedy and trauma?”
Thankfully, Freeform was on board with the team’s creative vision, helping the show step outside of its comfort zone by expanding its physical boundaries. Where “Grown-ish” normally films on sound stages, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” filmed largely on location in the streets of LA.
There the team recreated the realities of those protests, despite budgetary and other pandemic-related hurdles.
“I’m supposed to be able to mimic a downtown protest, where you have hundreds of people, and I can have no more than 40 extras, which includes my police officers and my protesters,” Rice-Genzuk Henry says of the COVID-safe shooting style. The key was to use a handheld camera style, with a lot of close ups, so the protest didn’t “look like a sparse little gathering.”
To make the location feel more alive, Rice-Genzuk Henry had the art department create massive murals to the fictional character of Marcus similar to those constructed for Floyd. The episode includes a young man singing “Strange Fruit,” which was something Allain-Marcus had seen on a street corner in LA. The writer lived near the intersection where the impromptu performance occurred, saying, “It was just so strange to see that [space] transformed with fed up youth.”
Rice-Genzuk Henry also asked the set decoration team to add pink flowers to a tree, after wardrobe found the perfect flowing pink dress to mimic the Pulitzer Prize-nominated image of Ieshia Evans, the young Black woman who peacefully stood against a line of police at a 2016 protest in Baton Rouge.
“It was really important for me to juxtapose the nastiness and the chaos and the violence with this beautiful image,” Rice-Genzuk Henry explains. “Every department really rose to the occasion. These were episodes that they really cared about so much that everybody was willing to go as hard and push the limits as they could.”
Courtesy of Freeform
While half of “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” focuses on protest, the other half follows the characters home, where Zoey and Jazz have a difficult conversation with Nomi as she confronts her “white fragility,” and Ana and Javi (Henri Esteve) reach a boiling point in their relationship over the situation. While those scenes were not as visually challenging as the protest, they were emotionally strenuous. Rice-Genzuk Henry praises Arlook in particular for her vulnerable work.
“That was probably a tough thing to pull off, in terms of having to carry the weight of being the voice of white fragility,” she says. “[Emily] really took this subject matter and wanted to handle it respectfully and delicately. I applaud her for having to carry the weight of wearing something that might not be looked at as the most flattering.”
“Same with Henri Esteve having to tell the cops, ‘Thank you for your service,'” Allain-Marcus chimes in. “That’s obviously a real perspective, but that is not that actor’s perspective either. So, to be able to take on these difficult sides, they threw themselves at it, because they knew how important it was to be able to share and discuss.”
The final day of filming fell on June 25, the day Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering Floyd. The set felt particularly charged that day; Rice-Genzuk Henry remembered breaking for lunch and sitting in her trailer, thinking that how the verdict turned out could derail filming.
“The next scene up was all of the kids sitting around watching the announcement of the next murder on the news,” she recalls. “Everyone was already so emotionally spent; they were already crying. It was silent. Everybody was just in a very reflective place.”
Moran texted Rice-Genzuk Henry from off set when he heard the news, noting the full-circle nature of filming coming to a close when it did.
“In a normal year that production wasn’t hampered by COVID, production would have been happening much earlier,” Moran explains. “To start writing this episode, as we’re learning that George Floyd was murdered, and then to have shooting wrap on the day of the verdict in the trial — and getting the verdict that we all wanted — it really did feel so full circle. It was special.”
“Grown-ish” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Freeform. “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” airs Aug. 12.
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