George Floyd’s death traumatized Susan Kelechi Watson. So she made her grief into art
Susan Kelechi Watson has been pained by the growing list of Black people struck down in the last several years by police brutality and anti-Black violence. But the killing of George Floyd cut the deepest.
“George’s death felt different,” Watson, who costars in NBC’s “This Is Us,” said about Floyd, who was killed in May after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. The incident was captured on video, sparking protests across the country and around the world.
“Sometimes there would be spontaneous tears and sadness, then I felt anger and frustration in not knowing what to say,” Watson said. “I never watched the whole video — it was too traumatizing to me. I just said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ... For that man to kneel on George’s neck and proudly take the life out of him was a real breaking point.”
Compelled to transform her grief into art, Watson became involved in executive producing a television adaptation of “Between the World and Me,” the celebrated 2015 book by Ta-Nehisi Coates that is presented as a letter to his 15-year-old son about the joys and perils of growing up Black in America. (Watson also appeared in a stage version, performed in 2018 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.)
The re-imagining of “Between the World and Me” arrives Saturday on HBO and features passages from Coates’ book performed by an all-star cast including Coates, Watson, Mahershala Ali, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis and Phylicia Rashad. The emotional monologues are supplemented with animation and archival material.
Speaking from her Los Angeles home, Watson called the project a “love song to our culture,” as well as a vehicle for putting forth her feelings about the issues of race and racism at the center of the national conversation.
“This Is Us” adapted on the fly to COVID-19 and protests against racial injustice: “It almost felt irresponsible to not take on the moment,” says its creator.
“I was searching for a way that would express what I was feeling, and I realized Ta-Nehisi’s book had already done that,” Watson said. “I needed to express how wrong police brutality is, how wrong racism is, how unfair and unjust it is, how much grieving is going on in the Black community, how vulnerable this community is above others.”
She added: “We just wanted to say something and create a space where people can come forward and have a conversation. We also don’t want it to stop here. We’re still provoking people to take action, not to take their foot off the gas.”
Also driving her vision was the memory of performing in the stage production. Watson was convinced a screen adaptation would carry the same power: “The theater audience embraced this so much. It seemed like the audience met the stage, and the stage met the audience. The energy flowed back and forth. People really felt it, and I think it will be the same for a bigger audience.”
Racial tension and racial injustice have also become a key through-line in the current season of “This Is Us,” the drama that revolves around a racially mixed family. Watson plays Beth Pearson, the wife of city councilman Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown), whose adoptive family is white.
The protests over Floyd and other Black victims of brutality have led Randall to confront his at times reluctant embrace of his cultural identity within the context of his family. The season also explores the ramifications of a fiery argument between Randall and his brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) at the end of last season that exposed unspoken tensions.
“I greatly appreciate what is happening on our show,” Watson said. “‘This is Us’ has never shied away from what is happening in the world. The Pearsons live in the United States of 2020. How could we not address what’s going on, especially when the core of the story is about a Black baby boy being adopted by a white family? What does that mean for him and the family? The way we show it and the way it was written feels like the writers were eavesdropping on every home in America. They found a way to synthesize it and inject it into our story.”
While she is excited about the ongoing season of “This is Us,” Watson is thrilled about “Between the World and Me,” which came together within a few months and was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The idea first started in late June, and we really got it going the last week of July,” Watson said. “To have it ready now is a feat unto itself. I have to give props to our director, Kamilah Forbes, who was also an executive producer. We were in production, pre-production and post-production all at the same time.”
For ‘The Bachelorette’ and ‘Big Brother,’ two series with fraught histories around race, meaningful treatment of the subject has been a challenge.
In the book, Coates looks back on his experiences growing up in Baltimore’s inner city and his fears of daily violence against the Black community. He asserts that society in America structurally supports racism and white supremacy. “Between the World and Me” won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Watson, who is a graduate of Howard University, reprises her monologue from the stage production in HBO’s version. In it, she pays tribute to Howard and other historically Black colleges and universities and revisits the Howard campus, proudly walking around the communal gathering area known as the Yard.
“It was so incredible, and I wanted people to not only hear about it but to see it,” Watson said. “The Yard is a great place of celebration that brought people together, where you could meet new people. All the Black diaspora was there, all the richness and strength.”
Onstage, she had also performed a portion of the book where Coates recounts taking his young son to the movies; there, he has a tense encounter with a white woman who pushes the small boy. In the TV version, the incident is narrated by Wendell Pierce and Michelle Wilson.
While confident that “Between the World and Me” will resonate with audiences, Watson also knows that the project is appearing two weeks after President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, marked their historic victory with outdoor speeches in Wilmington, Del. — a victory that has touched off unprecedented and unfounded claims questioning the election results by President Trump and his followers. Asked if the project’s plea for understanding and hope might be lost in the continuing divisiveness of the country, Watson paused.
“There will be people who come to it very easily, and people who will come to it unexpectedly,” she finally said. “We’ve told the truth from different perspectives, and this show is for everybody. We’ve created a space to continue and have that conversation.”
‘Between the World and Me’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: HBO Max
When: Any time, starting Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)
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