CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien took a fascinating journey over the last 18 months. She told SheKnows that making the multifaceted documentary “Black in America” was as important an assignment as she’s ever pursued.
When SheKnows caught up with O’Brien, the “American Morning” anchor was effervescent and enlightening.
She was quick to credit the fine news culture at CNN with allowing her the opportunity to even broach the timely subject via a two-night look at “Black in “America.” First, airing at 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. Wednesday is “The Black Woman and Family.” The final instalment arrives at 9 p.m. Thursday, “The Black Man.”
“We are free to explore what you want to explore,” O’Brien said of her network’s encouraging creative culture. “I felt very supported in having a strong voice in what I’m trying to achieve.”
O’Brien and CNN (with the help of Essence magazine for the July 19 “Reclaiming the Dream” forum) delved into the heart of the country to discover what, if anything, has changed in the 40 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Walking with the citizens across America spotlighting their experience is one mission of O’Brien’s “Black in America” journey. Specifically, the documentary puts a face on a the everyday people across the nation and what the program’s title means to them.
A startling truism
Traveling the country, quickly one issue permeated. “There were some things that were universally true,” O’Brien said.
“We noticed the degree to which black people would talk about having to tell their sons at eleven or twelve how to deal with the police. It was a common theme. I heard it so many times. It just stuck out.”
Geographic location, economic status, the sentiment was the same. “Across the spectrum they would say, ‘When my son turned eleven, I had to tell him about if you are stopped by the police, this is how you need to act.’ They all wanted to make sure he would survive,” O’Brien said. “It didn’t matter if you were the poorest in Detroit or the wealthiest Hollywood celebrity, those types of conversations white people do not have with their sons. People have discussions about respecting authority, but not about what to do with the police. After a while, it became breathtaking. It was a universal story.”
A first name for news
“We have the most amazing editorial team,” O’Brien said and smiled. “It’s such a great team of people who are always saying ‘That’s great. Let’s talk about it and flush it out.’ I like that in any editorial team.”
Having the luxury to traverse the nation searching for the truest representation O’Brien could report that would embrace her special’s hefty moniker was a blessing she again credits to the news team at Turner.
“You know, it’s more than having someone say yes to an idea. When you have projects that you are passionate about and they believe in you, they say they’re going to write the checks that pay for these projects, it means so much,” O’Brien said. “When they give you the hours you need to work on it for 18 months, I really found that the most wonderful thing about this project was the support I received from the network. I couldn’t believe how much.”
An election of change?
“When you look at the Obama presidential campaign, a lot of those stories in ‘Black in America’ had some resonance through his progress through the primary season,” O’Brien said.
Documenting life in 2008 in America while a black man was creating a groundswell in the Democratic primary provided a dimension O’Brien never expected.
“What’s interesting is to interview people while this phenomenon of Barack Obama is going on. To interview in that context as we sat there watching his progress, was incredible,” she said. “To begin with ‘He can never get it,’ to ‘He might make it,’ to ‘Oh, my God, he’s going to do it,’ it was very interesting stages to go through.”
One election will not change things too drastically, O’Brien says, even if the victor in that contest shares a personal history with those at the heart of her “Black in America” two-night report.
“There’s such an incredibly long history in this country that one election, one day, is not going to change the fact that the history of this country is rooted in slavery,” O’Brien said.
What to do? What will cause the change if even the highest office in the land still leaves America divided by race?
“What’s more likely to change is the conversation where people recognize the need for a dialogue,” O’Brien added. “That is what will cause the most change more than anything else.”
“Black in America” is set to air and if there was any exhaustion present in O’Brien after an 18 month soul-searching trek, she’s a better actress than a journalist because she lit up continually throughout our conversation.
“Over the last year, it has been a vigorous schedule and challenging subject matter,” she said. Guess the old adage is true, making a change is an arduous process, but through journalistic endeavors such as O’Brien’s, it is clear that progress is continually being made. “It’s been 18 months really of a long, huge effort that is so deeply interesting.”
“Black in America” is broadcast Wednesday and Thursday at 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. on CNN.
Don’t miss the trailer, courtesy of CNN: