Inside 'Family Reunion,' A Sitcom With An All-Black Writers Room
In Family Reunion, the new Netflix series, Tia Mowry-Hardrict plays Cocoa McKellan, a free-spirited mother of four and wife of a retired football player, Moz (Anthony Alabi, himself a former NFL player). The McKellans packed their bags in Seattle, Wash., and have moved to Columbus, Ga. to live with Moz's parents — including his old-fashioned mother M'Dear (Loretta Devine).
The family sitcom is penned entirely by black writers, and draws from the personal stories of its writers, including creator and executive producer Meg DeLoatch, who got the idea when she went to a family reunion in Georgia three years ago.
"It's such a warm, lovely feeling to be surrounded by family, and — you know, it's summertime, the food is great," she says in an interview. "And I remember wondering how different my life might have been if I had been able to grow up and live and work and raise my son within arm's reach of family. And so that had been marinating in the back of my mind for a while. So when Netflix came to me and asked me to do a family sitcom, I immediately thought back to: Wow, that time in my life."
On how the all-black writers room came about
At Netflix, and their encouragement. I actually didn't set out — that wasn't what I was thinking, and I'll be honest with you: because it's never really been something I've been allowed to do, at least not with the major networks. And then when one of the execs said, "Meg, you're going to hire an all-black room, right?" I was like, "I am. Yeah, I am!"
And it was really, really cool to do because I wanted to genuinely share the African American experience. And there's no one experience, of course, in this country. And so to assemble a group of people that, in some ways, what we all only had in common was being black, and then we came from different walks of life, different parts of the country — it was a great way to talk and percolate and weave together the experience of one black family. ... I mean it was important to me that we have younger writers, writers that were from affluent and less affluent backgrounds, because all of that is reflected in the show.
On what is different about an all-black writing staff
Well, first of all, there's a shorthand that happens when culturally ... we've been raised a similar way. And what I think is interesting is that a lot of African American people in this country: We're only a generation or two away from the South. So that means that even if you do come up in Seattle, you're probably being raised by someone whose grandmother was somewhere in the South. And so that means that culturally, food and conversation and other touchstones, there are some common threads.
So that being said, nobody had to stop and explain certain things. It was sort of already understood. Whereas if I were in other rooms that weren't all-black, I might stop and say, "OK, just so you know, a lot of black people, when they go to church, they'll wear dress hats," or ... whatever the topic might be. I might feel the need to stop and explain to someone what we're talking about.
On the family's immersion in the Southern black cultural experience
I think it's so important that kids be raised with an understanding of who they are culturally, and if for no other reason, for self-esteem, right. It's not to be like, "Oh, I'm like this, so I'm different from you, or better than you, or less than you." It's: "I'm like this, and this means something." And that there's a cultural relevance in that people have something to fall back on.
I was raised in a very integrated environment. And what that meant was that I felt good about being a young African American girl and having friends who weren't African American. And if you're not in touch with your culture, sometimes there are small things that might make you feel less-than, whether it's the way your hair curls or the fact that you're just different from your friends. So I wanted to get into that and say: It's cool to integrate, even to assimilate — but it's only cool if you know who you are and where you come from.
On the issues of identity around the light-skinned teenage character Jade
You know, that's the reality for a lot of people. And it can come from both sides of the spectrum depending on where you fall, color-wise. And it's one of the things in our community that we contend with. And there's nothing wrong with it. It's just — let's talk about it. Let's get to the root of it. And then at the end of the day, let's acknowledge while we may sometimes look different, we are not different and we're all beautiful.
On the scene where Jade is confronted by a group of girls because she doesn't know who the Black Panthers are
It was really important to me. ... I call them my "woke mean girl" crew ... because you know, high school is high school, and often girls are not very nice to each other. But I thought it would be really interesting if they were coming at her and weren't being kind to her because they felt like she was not "awake" and "woke." And so that there was more to their cattiness than just "we're teenage girls and we don't like each other." Their constant prodding with Jade is encouraging her to know her history, to appreciate where she comes from, and therefore to own all that she is. And ultimately they get her there. It's just not the nicest way possible.
On if Hollywood is having a moment for diverse cultural experiences in storytelling
I do. And let me say first: I hope it lasts. Because it happens every now and then where culturally, everybody will get into diversity, and then it kind of goes away. But it does feel different this time. And I am optimistic that it lasts. It is an awesome time to be a woman of color and a storyteller in Hollywood, because people want to hear our stories. And it hasn't always been that way. ...
And you know, everybody's experience is different. Maybe someone would argue with me about that. But I really — from just the sheer number of shows and movies and things out there that are telling different parts of the black experience, the Latin experience, etc., I feel that the industry is more open than it's ever been since I started working in it 20 years ago.
Jordan Tobias, Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.
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