Reckonings, pain and joy: ABC's ambitious "Soul of a Nation" explores all of it for all Americans

Salon talks with series creator Marie Nelson about ABC's six-part series that's "docu-zine meets news variety show"

By Melanie McFarland
March 3, 2021 1:05AM (UTC)
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Capitol Hill police officers featured in "Soul of a Nation" (ABC News)

Given its statement of purpose ABC News' six-episode series "Soul of a Nation" would have been a relevant, necessary undertaking at any time in our recent history. Surely the audience is aware of why we need it now, in a time when needed conversations about racial inequality have been derailed.

Highlighting that urgency is the content featured within the series opener "Reckonings." A segment on Evanston, Ill., the first locality meaningfully enacting a plan for reparations, features prominently. So does a lengthy interview with U.S. Capitol police officer Harry Dunn, who delves into detail about his harrowing experience of facing down white supremacist insurrectionists on Jan. 6.

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But "Soul of a Nation" is a series whose creative team that knows its audience and, more to the point, knows America. We'd more likely to take what a show like this has to say if it's being presented by stars to whom we can relate.

Hence the premiere's host, "This Is Us" star Sterling K. Brown, also sits down with "The View" co-host Sunny Hostin and political commentator Angela Rye for the first recurring installment of "In the Kitchen," a weekly conversation between newsmakers and thinkers about that week's theme and how it relates to current events. John Legend closes out the show with an interview and a performance. 

Upcoming episodes will feature "Genius: Aretha Franklin" star Cynthia Erivo, guest hosts Jemele Hill and Marsai Martin, and interviews conducted by a variety of ABC News correspondents along with special features created by ESPN's The Undefeated.

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Episodes of "Soul of a Nation" weren't available for review prior to its Tuesday night debut, but Salon was able to talk to series creator Marie Nelson, ABC News senior vice president of Integrated Content Strategy, about the meaning of a series conceived by Black Americans and meant "for all Americans."

The news magazine's primetime, midweek placement speaks to the seriousness of the network's commitment to the project and to granting it the best broadcast exposure available. It also acknowledges an awareness of the type of marketplace in which it is entering.

"It was so important for a program like this to have a life on network television, because in truth we didn't want to keep operating just within the confines of a bubble where we weren't rubbing up against our general audience," Nelson told Salon. "We wanted this to be a platform and a place where we would be drawing and attracting new and more diverse viewers in that audience."

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During our interview I referenced mention of the recent debuted "Amend: The Fight for America," which shares an executive producer, Robe Imbriano, with "Soul of a Nation." Like ABC's series it is celebrity-packed and takes a close examination at a subject relevant to social justice battles that are still happening today. It's not among the most popular TV series streaming on the service right now.

Meanwhile "Ginny & Georgia," a series that turns a lens on a biracial teenager's quest to find her place in the world and her struggles with racism, ranks No. 1 among its most-viewed shows. This tells us that people aren't necessarily turned off by these conversations. It's just that they'd rather encounter them in a fictional context. 

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Nelson doesn't intend to fight this with "Soul of a Nation." She's embracing it. To her, the series is a "docu-zine meets news variety show" emphasizing Black joy with the same passion as the culture's struggle and persistence.

"We know that in this moment, people need to understand these things," she said. "We need to know what the experience is of a Black Capitol Hill police officer who's facing a racist insurrection. We need to witness that. But at the same time, we also need to be uplifted. So we need a space that can do both. And so that's what we what we endeavored to do."

Our conversation, which continues below, has been edited for length and clarity.

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From the larger perspective of what last year represents obviously one would think "Yes, 'Soul of a Nation' is something we have to do." But I'm wondering if there was something personal for you that made you decide, "This is something we need to do now, and we need to cover these topics"?

It was really the culmination of so many things. I had been on this journey for a long time at ABC News and in other places in my career to figure out every which way possible to advance this type of storytelling. But it was really the culmination of what I call a series of rolling pandemics last year. The moment that COVID presented itself, those of us who were part of this effort at ABC News, we very quickly knew, as the saying goes, "When white America catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia." And so we knew that the dimensions of the pandemic were going to show themselves along all sorts of lines of racial disparities. So the country was going through that, and going through the profound economic dislocation that was happening.

And then you had the series of deaths, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor to George Floyd, and then this just complete social eruption. At that point, I mean, if you think about the news division, you're talking about people who had been running into the fire literally for months on end. We were all in this state and in a time of just feeling depleted and trying to figure out, "What could we really do that wasn't just about the news of the the day? What could we really do that was about advancing storytelling that perhaps had a different purpose, that was about illuminating an experience? That was about creating the opportunity for greater understanding? That was going to just pierce through everything that we were swimming in, in terms of the images coming out at that time?"

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I think that was the initial catalyst. The only second layer I would add to that is that because of the circumstances as a company, and when I say company I mean in terms of the broader Walt Disney company, we were really asking ourselves the tough questions and on a journey to figure out how we wanted to show up and show up differently. I think all of those things came together in a perfect moment.

There's a lot of different ways that TV filters Black life and American Black culture for viewers. And I'm going to take us back to the late '70s here: Obviously there's an interest in knowing about Black history that we saw in how successful, how history-making the audience was for "Roots" right? But so much has changed since then.

There are so many channels demanding attention, and the audience share has split seemingly an infinite number of ways. I must imagine that that has to be on your mind when something like this is being scheduled and formulated. So in a brass tacks way, what did you bring to this to gain the audience's attention. What considerations did you take into account when you were putting together the series in that regard?

It's funny that you mentioned "Roots." As you know, "Roots" was a most-watched television miniseries when it aired back in, I think it was 1977.  The finale was the most-watched single episode of any TV show in history at that time. [The final episode of "Roots," which aired January 30, 1977, was watched by 100 million viewers.]

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And so "Roots" became this cultural phenomenon. But if you go back to that period, quite honestly, this was considered a very, very risky proposition, the idea that audiences of all of all stripes would turn out for a program like this. No one could have gone into that experience predicting it.

It's interesting because one of the things that we very much wanted to do with this series was to go back to that moment and to revisit it. When we were thinking about this show, we wanted it to be something that felt like a whole reflection of that experience.

We wanted it to be something that was inspired and that really looked closely at some of the painful ways in which race has compromised Black lives. But we also wanted it to be something that felt joyful. We wanted it to feel like something that explained the ways in which Black people have sustained themselves even in the face of the legacy of racism in this country.

So when we thought about the six hours and how we were going to theme them – because we did want to create some connective tissue across the various segments and stories – we really thought very carefully about how we compose that mosaic.

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That's why it was important for us to start with the "Reckonings" episode because it was a catalyst. But what you'll even see, for example, in our next episode – which we call "Next," because it's focused on telling that incredibly powerful story of the next generation of Black America, what is their experience from their POV, from their vantage point – even between those two episodes, it already felt like something fresh and something that you wouldn't often get to see.

We actually explicitly created an hour that we call "Black Joy," because we wanted to look at it head on. And there's no way that you can talk about the Black experience without talking about faith. But for all of these hours, for each and every one of them . . . we really wanted these things to dig much deeper than you often see portrayed on television.

Soul of a Nation

I'm glad you brought up that episode about Black joy, because after George Floyd's murder [last year] there were so many people saying, "Okay, what do I need to read? What do I need to watch to understand this?" There is a lot of important material out there that gives people context.  At the same time, so much of the coverage has been focused on Black pain, what we've suffered through history and over the years. It's necessary for people to know that. But there have been a number of people who have rightly brought up, "What about a celebration of Black excellence and Black joy?"  Can you kind of tell me just a little bit about what specifically you wanted to look at in that episode?

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They [the producers and correspondents] are doing some pretty fantastic things across the six episodes. The cold open [of the first episode] is a spoken word performance by Common, where he really sets the stage with his artistry of what "Soul of the Nation" is and what soul represents. But you will see that as a drum beat across the hours.

One of the things that we're developing for Episode 6 is that kind of cold open, but using and working with Matthew Cherry, who is one of the creative leaders behind the amazing "Black Hair" short film. The other beautiful thing that we're working on with Alex Perez, our correspondent who's based in Chicago, is a segment that we're calling "Joy and Pain." So we're taking that critical examination.

One of the things that we wanted to have is a little bit of a drum beat there with taking a longer, deeper dive and understanding everything from the comedy of someone like a Dave Chappelle to thinking about what "Black-ish" represents in our current entertainment lineup – all of it, and really understanding that journey that we've been on about how Black people have used humor throughout to kind of get through hard times.

. . . I think it was important for us to try to dive a little bit deeper into the space of comedy in particular, because there's truly nothing like the experience of comedy and being able to bring laughter to the heart of like the Black lived experience and Black comedy is such its own distinct thing, that we wanted to highlight that.

Again, for each one of the episodes, we are doing these "In the Kitchen" conversations, because what we wanted to create was that base it's like when you watch something and you're inside that experience, there's nothing greater than being able to turn around and feel like you're having that true kind of down to earth, kitchen-based conversation that you could have some of these incredibly smart and in this case humorous people sitting around a table. And so Sunny Hostin is going to moderate those conversations. We're taping those much closer to air because we want to keep them very, very fresh and relevant to what may be happening in a particular moment closer to when we broadcast.

Were there people that you wanted to get who, and I don't want you to go into specifics, but who maybe didn't want to participate for the reason that some performers say, which is "I'm a performer for all people. And, you know, even though this is a series that is about the Black experience for all viewers, no thanks." Did you have any of that as you were going forward and getting people to come and join?

We never had anyone decline for that expressed reason, even as subtext. I think if there was anything that we ran into, some of it is tied with the fact that anytime you premiere a project and you're in Season 1, there's always that question of proof of concept, right? There was desire to see proof of concept was really on this question of, can this series deliver against the promise? Can this actually be a space that feels different, that shows up differently that isn't just picking at the scab of racial wounds . . . could it be real, could it be real?

That's the thing that I'm proudest of now that I get the opportunity to see the material as it's being produced. As a creative executive, I've had the opportunity to be a part of some of the landmark moments in television and film. And I include in that, for example, all of the things that I've worked on with Stanley Nelson's team, you know, working with Raoul Peck's team on, "I Am Not Your Negro." I've seen some of the finest work that's ever been done. And I look at this material and I look at this storytelling and I know it's real. And so it excites me because I think there will be no doubts, and there will be many, many people who would be proud to be featured moving forward.

"Soul of a Nation" premieres Tuesday, March 2 at 10 p.m. on ABC. 


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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