Shondaland: 'How to Get Away With Murder' Gets Personal About Criminal Justice Reform
Actor Glynn Turman tells how his own dad's incarceration influenced his portrayal of Nate Sr., and Matt McGorry (Asher), and series creator Pete Nowalk, talk why prison reform matters to them.
For a show that's known to kill multiple people each year, the latest season of "How to Get Away with Murder" is taking a hard look at life. Specifically, the ways that the criminal justice system impacts the lives of those tangled up within it. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) has turned her sights toward reforming the system by taking on the way it overworks public defenders, to the detriment of those who need defending.
Last season, in a landmark crossover episode, Keating went to Washington D.C., where she teamed up with "Scandal's" Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) to take her class action lawsuit to the highest court in the land. Keating argued before the Supreme Court that public defenders weren’t adequately representing their appointed clients, most of whom were overwhelmingly black. She won the case, giving her clients a second chance at freedom — including the father of her on-again/off-again, but mostly off-again love interest, Nate (Billy Brown).
Actor Glynn Turman, who portrays Nate, Sr., is most known for his prior role as Colonel Brad Taylor on the iconic '90s TV show "A Different World." Turman tells me that at the beginning of the season, series creator Peter Nowalk asked him if he had any connection to the Nate, Sr. storyline they'd be getting into. While his many, many on-screen credits date all the way back to 1961, Turman told Nowalk, and later me, the role of Nate, Sr. hit very close to home.
"[This was] very painful," Turman tells me. "It's been one of the most painful stories I've ever had to tell. But it was one of the most invigorating at the same time because this was an ode to my father who has since passed on."
Turman's father was incarcerated for a decade, interestingly choosing to bypass the opportunity for parole, because "he didn’t want to have to report to anybody when he got out." And when he did get out of prison, they had a good relationship, whereas prior to his incarceration, Turman didn't know his father.
In conversation, Turman says he believes his own personal story and the storyline he's a part of on HTGAWM represent "the tragedy of it all." He also says it is the tragic reality that most black Americans have the personal experience of either being incarcerated themselves, being related to someone who is, or who have been incarcerated, or are or have been incarcerated themselves.
According to a recent study by The Sentencing Project, black men are 5.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. In 12 states black men make up more than half the prison population. In the worst cases, broken down state-by-state, as many as 1 in 14 black men are behind bars. All of that data is on state prisons alone — it's believed that federal prisons "would generally increase the number of people by approximately 50 percent."
Turman calls the normalization of this what's most horrific, "that we live with it so easily, that we adjust to it so cavalierly, that it has such a place in our story that it's almost [surprising when we can't]" relate. He calls prison and isolation "an experiment," one that has profoundly negative effects on the mental health of the incarcerated.
"That's what happened to Nate, Sr., he lost his mind," the actor recounts. "One of the most powerful things was in the final trial when they put the tape on the floor and [Annalise] stood there inside it."
Turman is referencing a moment in episode five of season five, "It Was the Worst Day of My Life."
"492,750," Annalise says, standing inside the tape-drawn square on the floor of the courtroom during closing arguments to the jury. "That’s how many minutes Nathaniel Leahy, my client, spent in a cement box smaller than a parking space."
At the end of her close she stands, looking at the jury for a full minute in silence. That minute of silence on television was an awkward, uncomfortable eternity. The point was made.
The writing team wanted to convey what it was like to sit in silence, how uncomfortable it is. What it's like to spend years that way. How it could change who you are as a person, how you think, and the things you’d do. It was their way of talking about the various ways psychologists have told us the isolation of solitary confinement can make an indelible imprint on one's mental health.
That's something else that Turman says he can relate to.
"I don't know what he really was like before then," Turman said, "but he was never right after coming out. He was never right."
Matt McGorry plays the perennial cornball, Asher. But in real life, McGorry is an activist for racial equality. He openly discusses the problematic nature of white privilege, protests police-involved shootings of black people, works with The Movement for Black Lives, and is a part of work to reform the country's prison systems.
Earlier this year McGorry took Nowalk to a prison reform rally that moved Nowalk, helping to shape the stories that would be told in this season.
"There was a fundraiser for reform LA jails and I invited Pete to come with me and he came and heard stories from a number of folks," McGorry says. "Pete came and saw that there are real stories to draw from here, there are real conversations that can be had out of that.
"I'd just come back from this event," Nowalk says, telling his writers' room "we have to tell this story in the most impactful way."
Nowalk says he hopes the lives of the characters will translate to real life for his viewers — just as Glynn Turman translated his real life into this character.
"Maybe you'll remember, maybe you'll think differently about inmates when you hear these stories," he says. "Maybe you'll take a moment and say 'huh, what happened to that person that caused them to have to be in such pain or commit that crime.' It’s really an empathy project for me."