As a writer, there comes great responsibility to tell great stories, but also tell stories that emotionally resonate, that provide emotional truth and a true understanding and delivery of representation. And if we’re so lucky to have television shows or films written by visual wordsmiths, we are both entertained and engaged with the content.
I had the great honor of speaking with writer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas who is a three-time NAACP Image Awards nominee, co-creator and former showrunner of CBS’ S.W.A.T., written on Southland, Friday Night Lights, CSI: NY, and Netflix's The Get Down, and above else is an all-around genuine and knowledgeable industry leader. Aaron walks the walk and talks the talk. During our discussion, we spoke about him growing up in Kansas, what types of stories, TV shows, and movies piqued his interest at an early age in wanting to become a writer, and working and creating under COVID restrictions. Plus, we discuss what Hollywood can do to promote and elevate BIPOC creatives from within the system.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Let's start with your writing journey, what was a TV show or maybe a movie that piqued your interest in becoming a TV writer or just get into this business in general?
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas: I watched a lot of TV as a child, but I didn't have the awareness that you could become a TV writer until years later. My initial influences to try to embark on a career in entertainment came from movies. The TV shows that I watched as a kid were Hill Street Blues, Spenser: For Hire, and A Man Called Hawk, with Avery Brooks, who was one of the first African American heroes that I watched on TV. I also grew up watching the classic sitcoms: Cheers, The Cosby Show, A Different World. In regards to movies, I grew up in an era when there was an increase in the number of African American films. Many of these films were about the experience of growing up in tough neighborhoods. My early influences included Boyz n the Hood, written and directed by John Singleton. Another influence is Do the Right Thing. Even though I didn't grow up in New York, I admired it for the work and also the message behind it. New Jack City is another influence and favorite of mine because it was influenced by some of my other favorite films like The Godfather and Scarface. New Jack City entertains while delivering a meaningful message. To this day, I still try to emulate the goal of entertaining and engaging an audience.
Sadie: That’s a great roster of movies and television shows. And with your background growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, having those influences.
Aaron: Yeah, growing up in the middle of the country, I tell people “if you stood in front of a map of the U.S., closed your eyes and put your finger directly in the middle of that map, that's where I grew up.” I didn't grow up in an area where the idea of working in entertainment was really fathomable. It's like saying you're going to go live on Mars. But I was fortunate in that I have parents that were really supportive of any kind of crazy dream that I had and encouraged me to do my research. Even though I grew up in Kansas, I was aware of Gordon Parks who was an iconic photographer and directed Shaft. I was aware that even people like Walt Disney had come from where I grew up. Ed Asner, who is a legendary actor, grew up five minutes away. His neighborhood was very different from the one I grew up in, but it allowed me to understand that it was possible to attain these things. It's just that the journey might be a little bit different than if you grew up in LA or Brooklyn.
I actually wear that on my sleeve because it keeps me grounded. Whenever I go back home, people are happy for my success and my career, but no one talks about the entertainment industry. They're not obsessed with the ins and outs of the business. I can still talk about real life there. There's a bit of an underdog mentality. I come from a place that the coasts call the flyover zone, meaning you're being overlooked by the so called luminaries. There's motivation to stay true to the values that I grew up with, but I also try to put and keep my city on the map.
It's a great place to grow up. As a kid you want an area that kind of has a mix of all things American - the Midwest is pretty good for that. I've been fortunate to live in various places since then. I went to school in Atlanta, Georgia. My wife is from New York City, so I’ve spent a lot of time there. I currently live in Los Angeles. I've seen different regions and I have to say the Midwest does a good job of taking the best of the U.S. and combining it into one region. As an African American, there is a historical significance to the Midwest. The state I lived in was a free state, going all the way back to the migration of Black people all the way up into the Midwest. I take some pride in that as well, and it’s something that I try to explore in the stories that I tell.
Sadie: How much of your own experience as a Black man do you put into your storylines or characters on the television shows that you've worked on over the years?
Aaron: It's in everything that I do, it's in every story that I tell, in the DNA of it. The question I ask myself when trying to entertain and explore a certain point of view is “are the things I'm highlighting based on the truth of the character and/or world I'm telling a story about?” Even in previous stories I have created that are centered around characters who are not African American, that perspective of being perceived as an outsider or perceived as an underdog or perceived as someone that shouldn’t be underestimated - these are all things that are influenced by my own perspective as a Black man. My perspective as a husband, as a son, and as a father help me when I approach writing characters who aren't necessarily from my life experience. When writing a woman, for instance, or a middle-aged white male, being a Black man has forced me to have empathy in a way where when I go into areas - sometimes we call it code-switching - I try to understand the way other people think. Having to understand other people allows me to tell stories about perspectives that are not always specifically mine because I've had to do that my whole life. I look at it as an advantage in a way. It's forced me from an early stage to have to be empathetic to people who are not like me.
Sadie: You’re very emotionally heightened which I think is incredible and that's a nice superpower to have, especially as a writer.
Aaron: Yes, it’s helpful for diversity of storytelling. That is for sure.
Sadie: Do you think that TV show creators and showrunners on procedurals like yourself have a responsibility in providing factual truth to the audience?
Aaron: I do, although I think the term factual can be subjective depending on who you're talking to. Just like any other genre, there's going to be different types of cop shows, different types of procedurals. I would say there's a responsibility to have emotional truth. I think factual truth can depend on your approach to the subject matter. If you're doing a comedy, for instance, as a procedural, it may not have the same factual structure that a really serious, more grounded approach to that material would have. I do think the emotional truth should be displayed when depicting police procedurals, the reality of how the legal system impacts people's lives, and how police interact with individuals and groups. The material that is out there tends to influence how people interpret things on a worldwide scale. Storytellers are responsible for portraying certain points of view and understanding that not everything is purely entertainment. I travel a lot and realize that everything that is sent out into the world has a level of influence and propaganda infused in what people digest. Being honest and understanding that just putting out something that you may deem as harmless entertainment is not often that simple. The images we see do have an impact, especially at an early age. A lot of the time, the images we see tend to be the only way people meet others or experience cultures and ethnicities different from their own.
I think pop culture is the most influential and effective export that America has and there are a lot of people that experience America through our music, through our movies, and through our TV shows. When you put out a TV show, it’s going to be watched around the world. That makes a statement about our country and about the people in our country. We have a responsibility in the way we handle things and the storytellers behind it. We have an audience of hundreds of millions, if not more people, over time. What are you going to do with that stage? What are you going to add to a worldwide conversation?
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely, and on the research side because you travel so much, with the type of material that you write, how much research are you doing? Are you going on ride alongs with cops or are you going to stations and talking to them?
Aaron: Full disclosure, I've written on cop shows before I created S.W.A.T. for CBS, but I've recently moved on from S.W.A.T. after four seasons. That said, what I did in creating S.W.A.T. and writing for cop shows before that was a tremendous amount of research. One of the things that my parents instilled in me from a very early age was to do my research, especially when it comes to topics that may not be my lived-in life experience. When it came to writing for police officers, we grew up in our neighborhood with a love-hate relationship with police officers. I wanted to understand what it is to be a cop - are all of these individuals simply evil, selfish, aggressive individuals, or is there a lot more to it? And so from an early stage, even through college, I grew up around certain individuals who worked as police officers. I knew Black male police officers as a kid.
In college, I interviewed several police officers for various different projects, and then moving into my career as a writer, I've done several ride alongs. I was the first writer ever, from my understanding, to actually be allowed to do a ride-along with Metro S.W.A.T. in the LAPD. That experience opened my eyes to seeing both sides, it was illuminating. The ride along was one of the inspirations for creating the show. I went on a ride-along with Metro S.W.A.T some years ago, where they dressed me up in gear. I wore a bulletproof vest and helmet. I remember meeting with different platoons at 4 a.m. under the cover of darkness and we simultaneously raided four drug houses. But the feeling that I remember having wasn't even the energy of the raid. It was afterward, once people were being led out of their houses, mostly African American families. I watched their reaction to being taken out of their houses. Caucasian and Latino S.W.A.T officers were leading them out of their houses. The families weren’t looking at them, they were looking at me. I'm African American, dressed like a cop at that point. And in that moment, it was an interesting, weird kind of feeling in that I could understand that look that they had and I could also understand, from having met all of these officers, what their intention was going into these homes.
Being in that netherworld gave me a sense of both perspectives. I've been on both sides. I've been on the other side where I've been in touchy situations with officers while growing up. I felt like that was a dilemma that doesn't have an easy answer. To me, that was more compelling than chasing down serial killer number six thousand. The research influenced a lot of my own writing and understanding of the situation. Oftentimes these debates get boiled down to bad versus good, and it's often a lot more gray than that. You have people on both sides that are well-intentioned, oftentimes, and the execution of those stories can be better, more refined. And so certainly whenever I've written about police officers, I've always tried to write them with the idea of them being flawed, but also try to understand why they do what they do. Why do you choose that job to begin with? And it is a choice - that's the difference between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. I can’t choose to be Black, but I can choose to work as a police officer. So, why have I chosen that profession?
Sadie: And you're able to tap into that emotional resonance of both sides.
Aaron: It's a constant effort, that's for sure. It requires a team of people that share that desire, but that's where you have really interesting conversations in the writer’s room. Going back to the emotional honesty - are we telling a comfort food fairy tale? Is it good versus evil, or are we trying to look at the reality of “this is more complex than simply good versus evil?” There are elements here that don't have easy answers. There are questions that can be posed to hopefully lead to better conversations. And can we help get to more nuanced, more intelligent conversations about the topic?
Sadie: That's important in having those conversations. With what 2020 brought us in terms of social justice issues to even the pandemic, how do you think that has skewed storytelling, if at all?
Aaron: There's a practical side right away, which is how do you keep everyone safe and still execute these stories? That's the immediate change. Sets don't look the same, of course. The number of people on sets doesn't look the same, the content and the contact that you can have between cast members is very different. And then on the page even before you get to that, in the beginning, it’s different too. That idea of safety really became the priority and for the first time ever in my career, you started to consider safety even more than the story. How do we get through this in a way where we can still keep everybody employed and not endanger people unnecessarily? What that tends to manifest itself in is how many people do we absolutely need in the scene? Before you were just telling the best story - you don't really think about that unless it's a budget concern. You may put four or five people in a scene who are talking to each other. Because of COVID happening, you are responsible for getting a set of COVID tests and spacing procedures. You're also hoping that they're being responsible when they're away from set.
To eliminate X factors you start to try to be mindful of “how much do we need here? How many X factors do we need to tell this story?” And in a scene that would have had four or five people in it, maybe we can do that with two people instead and eliminate certain X factors. The byproduct of these responsibilities can actually lead to even richer elements for the actors. It gives more material to the two, so you're allowed to perhaps go deeper. Certainly, that can be true in the realm of procedurals.
Sadie: I’ve spoken with other TV writers and screenwriters who’ve been taping into a different creative reserve with these restraints, and they've really actually enjoyed being able to work within these boxes and see what they can do. I think that'd be a fun exercise for any writer.
Aaron: Yeah, I often find that creatively, when challenged, you can actually come up with some of the best stuff. I'm very proud of what S.W.A.T. did in season four. I think it was our best season, and it was under COVID conditions. A lot of that is based on being able to go even deeper into character, even deeper into the emotional elements our audience tends to take away from episodes. This maintains quality over quantity. You may have less people in certain scenes and less set pieces, big-time moments, but the ones that you do have you've prepped for thoroughly and you really want to make the most of it. You're going to want to make it really, really, good, because you have fewer of them.
Sadie: Knowing that we don't have many BIPOC showrunners or just even as studio heads or in networks, what are some programs or actionable initiatives that you think these networks or studios could provide in getting more of that BIPOC talent in the writer's room to eventually actually climbing the ladder and becoming a showrunner like yourself?
Aaron: That's a great question. I've always been a proponent of that. I expressed this to CBS certainly and CBS followed up and had their announcement last year with an initiative that 25% of their budget for development is to go to development for projects that are initiated by BIPOC writers.
What I expressed to them is that, in the past, I think Hollywood has tried to address this issue by trying to introduce new talent to the bloodstream - the writers’ programs and directing programs that introduce new talent. What I tend to find is that the bigger problem is not so much introducing new talent, it's what happens once that talent is there. So, like you said, what’s missing right now, is an infrastructure to identify promising talented voices and champion them up the ladder. What we find right now, is very much the haves and the have nots. You have certain BIPOC writers and directors who have been able to navigate the waters and become successful, most of the time on their own ingenuity. And then you have BIPOC creators and writers and artists who are in that entry-level area, where they may or may not make it out of that, they may disappear forever. Most of them do. And what's missing is the mentorship gap - the mentorship infrastructure in between. The entry-level position and the position of influence. And what I found is that this system has been in place for white writers for the entire history of Hollywood: the idea of there being a showrunner who really latches on to a young writer and shows them the ropes or gives them an idea of what to do or not to do. White writers have been afforded that. For years BIPOC writers have not had that, in part because there aren’t a ton of BIPOC writers of the higher levels to be interested in them. And then, in part, because very few have really looked to address that issue.
I think having an infrastructure in place such as an individual or group for every network and studio, who can recognize the promising BIPOC voices that have been introduced, and looking to champion them. This means keeping tabs on them, encouraging them, and making sure that if a show is ending you don’t let them wither on the vine. Instead finding another opportunity or role for them. Keep them in the family, so to speak. If you want to bolster your roster of talent, don't let your creators of color drift off to sea, look to try to keep them in the house. If you bolster them and champion them, you'll find that some will rise up and become showrunners and suddenly you will have a roster of BIPOC creators that you indulged, and you encouraged. It requires a conscious effort, rather than hoping it happens accidentally. When left to its own devices, and we have enough evidence of that throughout history, Hollywood is not going to be interested in advancing BIPOC voices long term. It's going to require money, time and effort.
Sadie: I totally agree. No more checking boxes, actually put in the work and lift these people up. What's next for you? Is there something you're really excited about getting off the ground? Are you taking some time off to relax and rejuvenate your brain?
Aaron: Relaxing and rejuvenating the brain sounds great, but [laughs] that's not happening. In moving on from S.W.A.T., which is going into its fifth season, I know that the S.W.A.T. family is going to continue to tell excellent stories and I'm very excited to see what they do. I'm now moving into developing new projects and there are things that I really want to talk about that I can't talk about yet. I'm really excited to get new stories out there, to get new voices out there, looking to work with new voices and looking to bring as many great stories to the screen as possible with the idea of entertaining and engaging audiences. That's my immediate outlook for 2021.
Sadie: That certainly is exciting! Aaron, thank you so much for speaking with me. I look forward to seeing what you have next in the pipeline.
Aaron: Good stuff. It’s been a pleasure and thank you for having me.