Shondaland: 'For The People' Writer Zahir McGhee on Exploring the Nuances of Being a Black Man in America
McGhee opens up about the latest 'FTP' episode "You Belong Here," and wanting to show viewers "the black experience is not a singular one."
We don't often view every side of a case in the criminal justice system through the lens of being a black man. But that's what we experience in You Belong Here, the most recent episode of For The People. (For a quick recap, click here.) Penned by Scandal and Private Practice alum, Zahir McGhee, the episode sees New York prosecutor Leonard Knox (Regè-Jean Page) facing down a celebrity defense attorney, Philip Kaws (Obba Babatundé). Both are black men — on opposing sides of a white-collar crime case that has a wealthy, famous black businessman at the center — and it's being tried before a judge who is also a black man.
When Knox find out he's been put on the case because he's black, it calls all his beliefs about his work into question — until he finds out his black boss is responsible for the decision. The case causes Knox to reflect (and operationalize) his own background and the challenges of his identity.
I talked to McGhee about how the episode was conceived, and he opened up about the deeply personal nature of the subject, and what writing and filming it meant to him.
Jarrett Hill: Where did this episode start for you?
Zahir McGhee: We didn't feel like we had done justice to Leonard yet, we wanted to explore him. We’d had this idea over the last two seasons of one of our prosecutors going up against a very famous defense attorney, a Johnny Cochran or Ted Wells-type.
Leonard is such an interesting character to think about for how people come up. I'm always fascinated when I hear about a person like him being a Black Republican. I tend to wonder what that's about and it was a chance to get to see more of who Leonard is. It felt like a really interesting place to go.
JH: The episode made me immediately think about Christopher Darden and Johnny Cochran — how Darden had come into the OJ Simpson case with a great respect for Cochran and how he ended that case feeling so differently. I was fascinated by how Leonard was drawn in with the beautiful apartment and having a piece of pie, but it also made me really sit in what it has to be like to be a black prosecutor and the precarious position that can sometimes put you in.
ZM: That definitely came up. It's obviously been back in the news recently, but it's a constant conversation amongst black people and people of color. I was reminded, in this case, of tennis player Jimmy Connors. He would befriend his opponents, throw them off their game, and then annihilate them in the arena. That's something powerful people do all the time: they bring you in with their shiny objects, using all of their weaponry — and sometimes that's their charm. Obba Babatundé plays the defense lawyer and he just really wants to win at all costs and is willing to use all of his weapons to do so.
Leonard is very rarely thrown off his game. He is someone who is singularly focused — some may say he's arrogant, but I think of him as incredibly confident. When a black person is confident, this idea of arrogance can be used to throw them off or suggest that they should be more humble, and Leonard is not that. He's the type of guy who you could point to Mt. Fuji and ask, "You think you could climb that right now?" and he'd say "Yeah, I can do that." So to see him thrown off kilter a little bit by an opponent he idolized, I thought was an interesting place to be.
JH: Can you talk to me about the choice to have a black prosecutor, a black defense attorney, a black defendant and judge, and even a black boss who put the prosecutor on the case?
ZM: As we built each layer of it, Paul [William Davies, creator of the show] and I discussed whether we thought it felt more complicated. And having Douglas (Michael Beach) be the person that put him on the case was an interesting twist to me. It would have been totally obvious if Roger (Ben Shenkman) had put him on the case, but having it as another black man felt different. I was thinking, "How do I make this something that feels not-that-terrible?" So then what he says in his monologue really grounds it. In doing that, we're trying to say that the black experience is not a singular one. All of these black men can have completely different experiences and share some things, and have little nuances that we all have. A lot of times we don't see that, it's more "all black people feel this way."
JH: I thought that speech you’re talking about, from Douglas, explaining or justifying the decision to put Leonard on the case because he was black was super strong. Talk to me more about the conversation around doing that.
ZM: I would feel shitty if someone put me on that case because of the color of my skin — it would feel icky to me. In this scenario, if Roger had done it, I would feel even ickier about it. But Leonard is a little bit different from me in that he's not grossed out by the idea that you'd put me on it for whatever — he's done a lot of slimy things — but he's offended because he's a man that wants to think that everything he's done, he's done based on his own merit.
It's partially true that for black people in this country you have to be twice as good — as Rowan said to Olivia on Scandal — that's something that black people know and live. For Leonard, if he's been given something because of the color of his skin, it takes away from what he thinks about himself: that he's the best prosecutor in that office. I think what Michael Beach says to him is both that "we want to win, that's why we put you on this case," but it's also him saying, "The fact that you're so upset about this makes me think that you think that people don't know that you’re black."
JH: In the end, winning the case didn't feel as good for Leonard as he thought it would. Talk to me about him feeling conflicted about the win.
ZM: Leonard is someone who wants to win at all costs. He's felt shitty about a win before, but as a prosecutor he knows what’s right. He knows that all the circumstantial "evidence" that his opponent is bringing up is irrelevant and the reality is the defendant broke the law. In the heat of battle, he wants to beat Kaws, and then at the end of it he realizes he won, but now he's just putting another black man in jail. And it's not just that, but he's putting another black man in jail for making a mistake that's not uncommon, and that other people make, but they don't go to jail. Ultimately, there's nothing to feel great about. One of the many, many strengths of the show is that it's not black and white — the law is complicated and there's (not always something) to celebrate.