Deji LaRay and Thomas Jones developed a show called Johnson to represent an alternate narrative for Black men.
Johnson was created to offer and embrace different perspectives of Black Males outside of the usual stereotypical displays. The show focuses on the lifelong friendship between four Black men who share the last name, Johnson. As the plot develops each of the men faces decisions that take them in a different direction and tests their bond. The show touches on conversations that commonly create tension such as political views, interracial relationships, racism, and upbringing. Each of these men deals with issues frequently seen within the Black community and unique to their situations. LaRay has included personal experiences from his own life, social media, and “hot buttons” to create multiple layers throughout the show and characters.
The television series was produced by Cedric The Entertainer and Eric C. Rhone. The show premiered on 8/1 across a variety of channels such as Scripps and Bounce. LaRay spoke with our correspondent Rebecca Eugene to discuss the inspiration for the show and the message being created.
The Knockturnal: When creating the show did you pull from any personal experiences?
Deji LaRay: There are definitely some aspects of the show that are loosely inspired by personal experiences along with situations I’ve witnessed from close friends. Johnson is a grounded show about everyday life so the more real-life experience I can pull from the more relatable and organic the show will feel. I wanted to create characters and narratives that everyone can relate to so the themes of the show are universal but as a black man our experiences are very specific so we dive deeper to make sure our unique experiences are reflected in the show, which is something you don’t see too often on television. I also pay attention to social media and hot button issues which also play a part in our storytelling. We always want the show to feel fresh and keep up with current events.
The Knockturnal: The show touches on important topics such as police brutality, mental health, racism, and other prominent issues within Black communities. What reaction do you hope to get from viewers?
Deji LaRay: We work to make sure the writing is as honest as possible while highlighting these topics that affect the Black community daily. Police brutality is finally starting to get mainstream attention. Mental health is just now starting to be recognized as a state of well-being that we need to be more aware of in our community. We’ve never been afforded the luxury of making mental health a priority because we’ve historically been so accustomed to dealing with a lot of stress in the black community. But now it’s becoming more socially acceptable to just talk to a therapist as a way to release our emotions. We highlight this and more traditionally taboo topics on the show so hopefully, viewers can see alternative solutions to situations that they’ve been accustomed to. We want viewers to connect with the characters emotionally and to feel something while watching this show whether you laugh or cry. Comedy is rooted in some sort of truth. So while we deal with some heavy topics we make sure to find the humor in many of these situations.
The Knockturnal: Throughout the series, there is clear tension between Jarvis and Gregory. Are their characters meant to represent the current struggle between the Black community when someone decides to venture out versus someone who decides to stay in their community?
Deji LaRay: There are some hot button topics in the Black community like voting republican or interracial dating that can sometimes be frowned upon if that person also downplays his or her own black experience. Jarvis went to an Ivy League school, surrounds himself more with the white community, and represents a particular type a black man that Greg views unfavorably. So yes Greg and Jarvis’ tension is bigger than their characters. They represent conflicting ideologies on a number of issues. We’re not saying anyone is right or wrong. We just want to offer perspectives on both sides to hopefully spark conversations that can bridge that divide.
The Knockturnal: What are the lessons you want viewers and fans to gain from watching the series?
Deji LaRay: I want viewers to recognize that a lot of conflict can be resolved with communication. I want viewers to realize that we can all be different and still respect each other. I want viewers to realize sometimes people have good intentions but still may offend you, we can extend a little grace. Most importantly, I want viewers to be entertained and to find parallels with their own lives and relationships.
The Knockturnal: Not only does the show represent the 4 Black men, but it also touches on topics that affect Black women. What made you want to include those aspects into the show?
Deji LaRay: Women have a very strong and powerful voice on Johnson. It’s a story that is told from the male perspective but that doesn’t mean it’s a bunch of men sitting around preaching their opinions. The men are offering their perspectives which will shed some insight into some questions that women have about men when it comes to relationships. But the women are just as prominent. They challenge the men. Once of the best compliments about the show from women is that it is very balanced. Women are represented. And with that representation we wanted to tackle topics that are important to women as well. We touch on postpartum depression. We touch child custody and relationships from a woman’s perspective as well. It’s important to make sure that we are keeping the show balanced so everyone feels like they have someone to root for.
The Knockturnal: I know it was important for you to represent black men appropriately and stray away from stereotypical views, for instance, the idea of an “Angry Black Man.” Why was this important for you? How is this how meant to uplift men within the Black community?
Deji LaRay: It’s no secret that black men and women haven’t had the best representation in the media historically. And when we did have representation, stereotypes have always been apparent. Our goal on the show was to take some of these stereotypes such as the ‘ angry black man, ‘deadbeat dads’ or ‘non-committal men’, and give a little more context to these broad negative labels. We wanted to take some of these stereotypes and peel back the layers to show more complexity and answer why some men are labeled as such. Often times Black men don’t get the benefit of the doubt of having the chance to explain ourselves or using emotions or feelings as a valid excuse for some of our actions. If we can chip away at some of these labels by showing us as humans with pure intentions that are sometimes misunderstood then we can begin to change the narrative and uplift, black men.