Isaac Wright Jr. has been on both sides of the criminal justice system, both as a wrongfully convicted inmate and as a lawyer, with his life serving as the basis for the ABC drama series “For Life.”
Wright spoke with Variety recently to offer his unique perspective on the protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and what the United States should do to move forward.
Read the full conversation below.
Obviously this has been an ongoing issue, but what do you make of all that’s been going on the past few weeks?
I think it’s a culmination of a sequence of events that was ultimately going to get resolved and that’s what’s happening now. We’ve been on this road as a country for decades. And so it’s not surprising that it is happening. I think what’s more shocking is the difference between how industry is responding as opposed to government. Obviously, the protesters are the common people. But even now, you have major corporations that are making proactive moves and getting involved in the social justice movement. They’re pledging to invest billions. And so our government, unfortunately, is still behind. They should have been taking the lead and they’re not so that’s the unfortunate thing about it.
Other than corporate involvement, is there anything else that surprised you?
The incident itself was surprising. Not because a black man died at the hands of police. What was surprising about it is that for the first time it was captured on film in such a way that the public had a bird’s eye view of how law enforcement actually felt about doing something like that. I mean, it was not only callous, but it was another-day-in-the-office type of an attitude about what they were doing. If you watch the entire video, you would see that after George Floyd was either unconscious or dead, it took the paramedics leaning down and grabbing [Chauvin] by the knee to actually get him up off of [Floyd’s] neck. And so that was shocking to me. Because up until that moment, law enforcement has done a very, very good job in hiding the way they really feel about the brutality that they inflict on other people. So that was probably the most shocking thing to me was they slipped and they let the public see how they felt about it. The only other thing after that that’s surprising is that it’s now a worldwide movement.
In your opinion, what appears to be the best way forward here and what changes should be made, first and foremost?
You know, that’s a great question because I haven’t seen anyone touch on what I think is the true answer and the answer that will really, really make a difference over the long term.
There’s a lot of movements out there. There’s a lot of people and a lot of organizations doing really, really great things. But there’s an underlying reality that we’re facing as a country that is not being addressed and that is that America as a country was not ready for change. And I’m not talking about the common man. I’m talking about the people who are in positions to make the changes. The only changes that we can make as people is changes in leadership. But as a people, it’s very, very difficult once those people get into those positions for us to make any changes. They have to actually make the changes that reflect the attitudes of the majority of Americans. There’s a couple of realizations that support that position, and that is, obviously we’re the greatest, most powerful country in the world and we effectuate change not only in leadership, but in policy and in customs in countries all across the world.
In major industrial countries, it is a requirement that the students in grade school learn English. The financial instrument of choice internationally is the American dollar. And so that represents the kind of power and influence we have all across the world. But for some reason, we cannot stop the culture of brutality that we’re facing. It’s only because we’re not ready. It’s not because we don’t have the power, because we’ve done it all over the world. As a country, you know, we’re not ready. And the reason why I say that is because the people who are able to make the changes when they see minorities getting brutalized and specifically African Americans, the reason why it doesn’t change is because they don’t actually see themselves. When they look at that they don’t see themselves. And that is a reason why America has never been ready. Because up until probably this George Floyd incident, America has not looked at incidents with minorities like that. They just looked at them and see them as wrong. And that’s not what changes things. All these things are happening now — the protests, these social justice groups. All these things are necessary.
But I think what’s going to actually create change over the long term is to do something that we’ve failed to do, and we should have done a long time ago, and that is to educate our young people about not only American history in general, but also about the dark side of American history. They need to really understand it. When slavery was over, those atrocities that were done by slave owners was passed over to law enforcement, and law enforcement took up that task.
I like to bring up something like the Holocaust. That happened in the 1940s and spanned a number of years, probably about a decade. We have to see the atrocity in that and see that not only the devastation, but the collateral damage over decades and decades because of that. And then you have to look at what’s been happening to blacks for a couple of hundred years.
When something happens to me, as a black person, when I get in an encounter with the police, I’m not just seeing that encounter, in and of itself. I’m looking at that encounter, and I’m assessing that encounter based on an unbroken chain of atrocities that I can trace back to slavery because my parents, you know, they didn’t immigrate. My parents came from the south. So their ancestors were actually slaves in this country.
So now, if this was a situation where the person looking at this are seeing themselves, it would change overnight. And I believe it starts in schools. I believe it starts with giving the true education, the true relationship that blacks and whites have in this country, and I think that will make a huge difference.
Looking specifically at “For Life,” what do you hope people would take away from the show in this moment?
“For Life” represents a person almost single handedly turning his situation around against an incredibly formidable adversary, which was the state government. Now we have the American population facing down the same type of tragedy. So I think “For Life” represents what we can do as a people, the changes that we can make for the better as a people if we just focus. We’re demanding change. Nothing can happen unless we’re heard first and once we’re heard, then we can make changes. So right now people are listening.