Grand Army's Maliq Johnson talks about his role in the Netflix show and the importance of nuanced representation of young Black men.
There are a lot of shows that try to keep us [minorities] in a box or under a certain description of what we do, how we act, and what we look like. Visual representation and inclusion are important because it’s about perspectives, challenging norms, and pushing boundaries. I can play a musician, I can play a doctor, I can play a lawyer … we can be other things than a thug or a rapper on screen.
I watch people on TV or in films and think “that’s not how I would say it” or “that’s not how it would go,” because I know my culture, I know how we would act [in certain scenes], or how things would turn out in [real-life] situations. This makes me want to go for the roles that are not typically shown. It’s about the craft, about making it believable. It’s about how well you can tell the story.
When I was cast in the role of Jayson Jackson, I was excited for Grand Army because it plays out multiple perspectives while still being authentic. I hope this show gives the audience some new perspectives and hopefully sparks some new ideas on how to make a change in the industry and around the world.
I went to a high school with limited resources [i.e. a lot of our extra programs were cut], you had to pay for everything, and there were metal detectors. I grew up in a community where you already don’t have much to begin with, and there are all kinds of hurdles before you get into the actual classroom. It’s hard to keep your grades up when you’ve got to worry about external factors. If you have a lot going on at home and then go to school, you’re still expected to learn, focus, and be present. Whereas someone from a different community, who is more fortunate does not have to worry about those issues. They only have to deal with what goes on at school, so of course, their grades might be better which ultimately may lead to better opportunities.
It’s not so cut-and-dry all the time. For example, I have friends that have been suspended for small things; ie. for not wearing their uniform a certain way. Some schools want you to wear a uniform but don’t supply the uniform that you’re supposed to wear. But sadly, not every student has that much money, to begin with, so they can't afford to buy a uniform for every day of the week. As a result, a kid comes to school a certain amount of times without that proper uniform and violates the regulations, which leads to suspension.
To make matters worse, when someone doesn’t understand the seriousness of being a Black man, they won’t understand how being suspended from school could alter your life so drastically.
Watching how my character's storyline plays out in the show, I don’t think Joey [played by Odessa] realizes the magnitude of what she was doing by reporting us, instead of trying to understand the incident that takes place. This is ironic because Joey appears to support the BLM movement when she takes a knee during the basketball game. It’s almost hard to tell if she’s being genuine. I suggest for others to take into consideration how punishment could affect disenfranchised people. Consider where that person comes from, consider all the possibilities, and definitely consider the worst possibility because the worst-case scenario usually plays out. Would you want yourself to be in that same situation? Would you want that to happen to someone you care about?
One of the biggest themes in Grand Army centers around the rules and regulations that disproportionately impact Black students — especially after Owen was treated unfairly. Ironically, that’s similar to what people are protesting in the streets right now: Black people being disproportionately killed by police officers and nothing being done about it. Breonna Taylor’s killers still haven’t been held fully accountable. This right here is exactly why we’re protesting because that’s not supposed to happen.
The different scenarios played out in GA are opportunities for viewers to be made more aware of others and their situations and the importance of being held accountable for your actions. Pay attention to not only what people say but how people act because most communication is non-verbal cues. Be more aware and conscious of all interactions with other people. And most importantly, put yourself in someone else’s shoes before you do or say something to them.
Photographer: Micheal Creagh
Stylist: Mickey Freeman