Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{Interview} Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes Talk Twilight Zone, Jordan Peele and Representation

Season 2 of the Jordan Peele produced The Twilight Zone comes out on Thursday June 25th. I had the honor of sitting down with writers Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due. We talk about their episode, Candyman, and the special genius that is Jordan Peele.

SH: Can you talk to us about the origin of your episode and how it fits in with Season 2 of Twilight Zone?

Steven Barnes: I think the genesis of this project is like the genesis of most projects. We bounce around different concepts and we talk with the producers who bounce ideas back to us. You have to build something around a story. It has to be something you want to say…a theme, that triggers an emotion.

Tananarive Due: Right Right Right. We created a story and a character that fit into our premise.

Steven Barnes: I grew up with The Twilight Zone. It was my favorite show as a kid. And then I had the honor of writing for the 1980’s version of The Twilight Zone with Jim Crocker, Philip Deguere, and of course Harlan Ellison as the story editor. That was my first Television so the opportunity to circle back around and work with Jordan Peele who I feel is an absolute genius…

Tananarive Due: What really intrigued us when we wrote A Small Town was what happens when someone who perceives themselves as powerless actually has power and the meaning of that power.

SH: Was there an intentional connection between the mayor in the story and the current political situation?

TD: Without speaking to that directly, I will say as we were writing it, we were informed by what was happening on the political landscape. We were also very careful that we wanted to write a story first.

SB: Tananarive is more of the political one in the family I am more philosophical. I am more interested in the origin of power. How we use power. What purpose does leadership hold? Those are the really interesting questions. As Tananarive said even looking at all of those questions you have to look at everything and see do I have a story here? Because if you don’t have a story then the politics or philosophy don’t matter. Any story is going to have a philosophy embedded in it. I am not going to twist that to try and fit my politics. It is always going to be story first.

TD: As artists, we are seeing something like this a lot more in conversations now with the Black Lives Matter movement having so much momentum around the world. If you write the world as you perceive it of course there will be aspects of your world that enter the story even if that story is fantasy. We were thrilled to write a story with a black protagonist. Representation has been a long fight in television and obviously Jordan Peele’s version of The Twilight Zone is very multicultural and it was a real joy to write a script knowing we wouldn’t get push back.

SH: The relationship between The mayor and the little boy in the story seems quite complex and interesting can you speak to that relationship a bit.

SB: I would rather talk about how you develop characters. You start as stick figures. Well this character needs to talk to somebody. Well who is that he needs to talk to? As you go through your drafts you develop those people so that they have a personhood. They existed before the story began and they will continue to exist after the story has ended. You very carefully develop each other character to reflect some quality of your lead character in the same way that your friends reflect some aspect of you or that families have personality or a dynamic. So you look for those things. The little boy then becomes less jaded or less cynical in other ways, version of the lead character. You find and play with those connections so that every character is at the center of their own universe. If you do that these relationships develop organically.

The Twilight Zone A Small Town
“A Small Town” — Pictured (l-r): Natalie Martinez as Ana; Andrew Alvarez as Emilio; Damon Wayans, Jr. as Jason; Paula Newsome as Pastor Nicki; of the CBS All Access series THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Photo Cr: Dean Buscher/CBS 2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

TD: As a writer I would like to say I like to write about young people because not only do they represent innocence which was something that we see in this episode with this kid

SB: Emilio?

TD: Yes! Emilio! He was innocent but they also confront the world head on in a way that adults have often forgotten how to do.

SB: Our main character might be someone who is hiding a little bit. He went out into the world and is now hiding from it. Emilio on the other hand is asking the same question all children ask “how will I go out into the world and become an adult?”

TD: The fact that Emilio is an artist because we are also artists and we see the world through his eyes as an artist as he sees it.

SB: If this were a book Emilio might have been a writer. But because it is a television episode he needs a visual representation of how he thinks and feels and represents the world. So being a visual artist works in a visual medium whereas being a writer would show paragraphs of what he has written you would look internal to see what he was thinking. So if you were to watch the entire episode from the position of Emilio being the lead character the episode should still make sense. You should see his hopes and his dreams. If you look at it from the position of his mother or the mayor we have created an imitation of life. It is a puppet show but as long as the puppets are behaving like human beings then the audience has agreed to not notice the strings.

The Twilight Zone-A Small Town
“A Small Town” — Pictured (l-r): Natalie Martinez as Ana; Andrew Alvarez as Emilio; of the CBS All Access series THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Photo Cr: Dean Buscher/CBS 2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

SH: Well I was drawn to the Emilio as a character and the entire episode was fantastic.

SB: I wanted so much for this to be something that She (Tananarive) could be proud of. Something our family or our friends would look at, our son and daughter could look. For all of us to share. For me this was not just a job it was a completion of a lifetime. I started in Twilight Zone. To be honest I just adore Jordan. I think he is the real thing. He is important culturally and to get the opportunity to play with him in his sandbox….

TD: Do you know our origin story? When Get Out first came out I was so excited by it. I teach at UCLA and I decided to teach a course centered around Black Horror that I called “The Sunken Place” Racism, Survival, and the Black Horror Aesthetic. As social media will do, Monkey Paw heard about it and the same day that the class was announced I heard from Jordan Peele who said wouldn’t it be funny if I surprised your class, haha. A few week’s later he actually did. He sat in the back row. We smuggled him in. He was wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap. I distracted the class by playing a scene from the movie that really triggers them. It is the scene when Rose holds up the keys and everyone was upset. I asked the class does anyone have anything to say about what the director might have been trying to say and Jordan Peele raised his hand and the class went crazy and it was an amazing experience. Out of that is how we both met Jordan Peele. He invited us into pitch and that is how we ended up writing for The Twilight Zone.

SH: I am familiar with your academic work with Candyman. Could you talk to us a little about your thoughts on Nia DaCosta’s new Candyman Trailer.

TD: Beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful and I was thrilled to see it. Not just because I haven’t seen the new Candyman yet but the new trailer really addressed some of the expectations I have for the film. The first is a classic. It is beloved and Tony Todd did a fantastic job but I think the filmmakers fell short in terms of racial depictions and depictions of issues facing black people in the inner city because the urban had to be the monster to a degree. As much as black viewers love that film and love Tony Todd there is a lot of room to tell that story from a black lens and I am suspecting that is what Nia DaCosta has done with the new Candyman.

SB: We will eat tripe until you get a chance to have prime rib.

TD: Exactly

TD: Unfortunately so much of the history of Blacks in horror we are either the monsters or the comic relief. I was an executive producer on the documentary Horror Noire: The History of Black Horror (you can catch it free on Shudder right now). One of the things I said there is that black history is black horror and that is something I thought about as I watched that trailer. The degree to which we have been victimized.

SB: I think a lot of what we are seeing right now in terms of people filling the streets is the energy that happens when you collapse a lie. A lie that was told about what black people were that was necessary to sustain slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and other things. It was necessary for people to feel good about themselves so that they could extract labor to support their agricultural civilization. That mythology of Black inferiority outlived the institution itself and we are just now beginning to ask the question what if we are truly human. So what Jordan Peele did, I don’t know if it was deliberate or just unconscious genius, he tapped directly into that question, that mystery. That if we are actually equal then why has civilization and history been so unequal. What is going on? What have been the forces at work? It is painful to look at but because Jordan is a world class comedian he can take any subject and turn it hysterically funny whenever he wants to. He knew just how to ask the most painful question and relieve the tension with a laugh. That is the brilliance we need right now.


Courtesy of CBS All Access

TD: I am really thrilled about what I call the Jordan Peele effect. Which we are a part of Steve and I with The Twilight Zone episode A Small Town and me getting this opportunity. I have been a published author since 1995 and to jump into television writing on such an auspicious series with so much great social justice messaging throughout with Jordan since Season 1 which I was a fan of as well. The Jordan Peele effect extends to me. It extends to Nia DaCosta who is doing Candyman. It extends Misha Green who is the showrunner for Lovecraft Country. That is one of the great things about him he is one of these artists like Ava DuVernay, like a Shonda Rhimes. They will lift, as they climb.

All of the second season of The Twilight Zone drops tomorrow on CBS All Access. Check out Due’s and Barne’s episode along with a number of others that are quite good including a deliciously bizarre science fiction number by Oz Perkins.