Two larger than life figures from the world of television, Norman Lear and Shonda Rimes, have joined forces to produce a thought-provoking 5-part docuseries airing today on the network EPIX called "America Divided." The show takes viewers across the country to tackle some of our most pressing problems. The correspondents leading each journey are names familiar to most Americans, such as the rapper/actor Common, and actors like Amy Poehler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Williams, Rosario Dawson, Zach Galifianakis and America Ferrera.
"This series cuts to the heart of the inequality crisis, exploring life-and-death struggles around the economic, social and political divide," said the show creators. "Our aim is to expose the damage extreme inequality inflicts on all Americans, reveal its systemic causes, and celebrate real-world heroes fighting for solutions."
Drug policy reformers will be particularly interested in the story covered by Common on the criminal justice system, police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement in Chicago. The narrative is shaped around the aftermath of the shooting death captured on video of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American teenager, at the hands of a Chicago police officer.
The show digs deep into longstanding problems of police abuse and mistrust in Chicago and the way this exacerbates violence in the black communities that bear the brunt of police aggression. Common interviews scholar and author ofThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, and uncovers how much the odds for justice are stacked against the poor and people of color in Chicago - from racial profiling to the bail system to scarce services to help formerly incarcerated people when they reenter society.
Other stories in the series that examine issues relevant to drug policy include Peter Sarsgaard investigating the drug overdose and opioid abuse problem in Dayton, Ohio. Sarsgaard meets with people struggling with addiction and their family members, offering a glimpse into the human tragedy and despair underneath the surface of national statistics. This story touches on how the "changing face of heroin," that increasingly features predominantly white rust belt and rural communities, has shifted the national dialogue from "war" to "compassion," underscoring the racial bias that has plagued American drug policy.
Jesse Williams' coverage of the school-to-prison pipeline and the systemic criminalization of black children in St. Petersberg, FL will be of interest to criminal justice and education reform advocates. Williams digs into the history of the city to expose how deeply intertwined its legacy of segregation is with contemporary inequities and the excessively harsh punishment of black youth.
Part of what makes "America Divided" compelling is the personal connection that each correspondent brings to the story, which is referenced throughout to great effect. Common comes from the same community on the South Side of Chicago as many of the people he interviews. Peter Sarsgaard has a personal and family history of struggles with addiction. Jesse Williams was formerly a teacher in an under-resourced public school.
It's exciting to see big names from entertainment taking on pressing social issues in a bold new way. Hopefully, "America Divided" will inspire viewers to have a better understanding of sharply different lived realities experienced in this country, and provoke them to be part of the movements for change.
Sharda Sekaran is the Managing Director of Communications at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog: http://www.drugpolicy.org/