Van Jones gave the crowd an assignment at the end of Wednesday night’s premiere of the ABC drama series “For Life” at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
“This show cannot fail,” Jones, the activist and CNN host and commentator, said after moderating panel with stars and producers of the show that revolves around the theme of criminal justice reform, Jones’ signature issue.
He exhorted the audience to use their “walking, talking superpower” of social media platforms to build word-of-mouth for the Feb. 11 premiere of the series from “Power” executive producer Curtis Jackson, Sony Pictures TV and creator/showrunner Hank Steinberg. Jackson, aka rap mogul 50 Cent, reinforced Jones’ statement: “It absolutely cannot fail,” he deadpanned.
“For Life” was inspired by the jaw-dropping story of Isaac Wright Jr, who was framed for selling drugs in 1991 and given a life sentence under New Jersey’s then-new “drug kingpin” law. In prison Wright earned a law degree and worked as a prison paralegal who won freedom or reduced sentences for more than 20 other inmates. Wright eventually secured his own exoneration after seven years behind bars, and then waged another long battle to become a licensed attorney in New Jersey, which took effect in 2017.
Wright told the audience that he actually struggled with re-entering the world outside of prison because he felt such an obligation to help those dealing with wrongful convictions and out-sized sentences.
“The thing that hurt me the most was that I knew I was leaving thousands of people behind me that did not have the gift I did,” he said. Now he’s gratified to be part of a television show on a Big Three network that shines the light on overzealous prosecution, particularly for people of color. “For Life” will deliver a measure of “hope that I can give to millions all at once,” he said.
When Wright and Jackson first met, Wright was shopping his story as a movie. Jackson convinced him it needed to be a TV series. “This story is too ‘now’ and too current,” said Jackson, who will also be a periodic guest star on the show (“Expect the unexpected,” he promised).
Steinberg said he jumped at the chance to adapt Wright’s story. He had been looking for a meaty subject to take on after spending most of 2017 “reeling” from the 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House.
“This started to pour of of me like in a way like nothing I’ve ever written,” Steinberg said. “I connected to the injustice of it all.” At the same time, the show’s central character, Aaron Wallace, played by British actor Nicholas Pinnock, is a fictional creation and thus “can go in different directions” from Wright’s real-life experience, Steinberg said.
Pinnock also has been deeply inspired by getting to know Wright. “It allowed me to deliver a performance I didn’t know I was capable of doing,” he said.
Joy Bryant, who plays Wallace’s wife Marie, said she drew on her own experience with family members and friends who have dealt with incarceration to breathe life into her character. Jones noted that Marie breaks the stereotypical mold of the long-suffering wife with a partner in prison.
Given all of the focus in culture and politics on discrimination and criminal justice reform, “it’s a great time for this show to exist,” Bryant said. “Five years ago, maybe it wouldn’t have. It’s the right show at the right time.”
(Pictured: Van Jones, Curtis Jackson, Louis Reed, ‘For Life’ executive producers Alison Greenspan and Doug Robinson, Joy Bryant, Nicholas Pinnock, Hank Steinberg and Isaac Wright Jr.)