The title for new YouTube series GIANTS, which airs on Issa Rae's channel, comes from a conversation between one of the main characters and his sister. But the inspiration for the series comes from a number of things important to today's cultural landscape.
ESSENCE recently spoke to GIANTS writer, director, and star James Bland, as well as co-stars Vanessa Baden and Sean Samuels. They dished on the new series, which explores the millennial struggle, sexuality, and mental health, and clued us in on how a new generation created a conversation around mental health and how Black artists should look at their art in the age of Trump.
The story of how the series began starts with a robbery and advice from mom. "I had a conversation with my mom when I was robbed at gunpoint in L.A.," Bland begins, detailing the terrifying account in which he describes being absolutely fed up that day and making the decision to fight his attacker. "I actually ended up fighting the guy who robbed me at gunpoint because he was trying to take my laptop. I never thought that I would do that. I'm not a confrontational guy, but when you reach the end of your rope, you don't know what you're going to do."
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Bland called his mom after the incident and she gave her son a bit of guidance. "When I talked to my mom about it, who is a very spiritual woman, she was like, 'You know when I heard the story, James, it reminded me of David in the bible. About how David fought the lion and David fought the bear,' and she was like, 'Sometimes you gotta fight for your stuff.' And in that particular moment, that was that moment. And that one conversation was the impetus for me writing this series and titling it GIANTS."
The cast of the series includes Vanessa Baden, the actress who played Kyra Rockmore on Kenan & Kel and who's known Bland for quite some time. "James and I met in high school. I was the only Black cheerleader in my high school trying to be a normal kid after being on TV and James played basketball, but James didn't have cable growing up. So, he played like he knew who I was and I played like I knew who he was, but we really didn't know each other," she said. Baden plays Journee, the best friend and roommate to Bland's Malachi.
Samuels plays Ade, who landed the role through a chance encounter. "James and I met pretty much kind of on the street," he revealed. "James just saw something in me and he was telling me about this project and he was like, ‘I see it for you.’ I came from New York as a Broadway dancer and we talked about that and my history and he kind of threw that into the character. But, James kind of like adopted me and made me one of his little students really."
Balancing full-time jobs, a pregnancy, and life's various demands, the cast shot the series over weekends, Bland writing the script as things went along. Executive producer and Empire star Jussie Smollett, a long-time friend of Bland and Baden, signed on after being inspired by what he saw. The show explores sexuality and mental health in the Black community, topics that have recently come to the forefront.
"Our generation, with our education, we're turning the tide and I think that that's something that maybe our parents weren't quite prepared for," Baden explained. Her character in the series battles depression as she struggles to balance life's ups and downs. "I know certainly for me, if I even talked about any social issues at school it was, 'I'm sending you to school to learn, not talk to your little friends.' We're beginning to understand that part of our schooling and part of this upward mobility in society for people of color is also learning a more sophisticated approach, perhaps, to mental health and to sexuality and just our general well-being and that's going to be hard for the last generation, because they just weren't as exposed to it. And so I think for us, we're showing that generation gap."
The first episode of the series has already aired, and features Malachi giving a powerful monologue on police brutality, Samuels' Ade reflecting on his relationship with his dad, and a glimpse at Journee's depression. In such a politically charged climate, Black filmmakers and artists tackling such issues and holding a mirror up to society is important.
"I think it's so important for us as artists, particularly in this time living in Trump's America, to reflect the times. To be very honest, to be disruptors, in our content and in our work," said Bland.
"I wish we would talk more openly about what it means to live your truth," adds Baden. "Our truths are turning into emulations of people who are free. And something that I think I would tell an artist is really just throw s--t against the wall and see what sticks and let's call that truth."
Offering advice to artists putting out work today, Samuels adds, "Listen hard. Listen, be aware, listen and be aware, because everybody has a story and not every story is going to become the first story heard, that's why GIANTS' message is so loud and it reverberates so loud, because we have to be heard, even if you don't agree. We live next door to each other and we have to have love for each other, because our children are the next generation. What do we want to leave them?"
A new episode of GIANTS drops every Wednesday at 8 p.m. on YouTube.