'#FreeRayshawn' Cast on How the Quibi Series Reflects 'the World We Live In' (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Starring Laurence Fishburne, Stephan James and Jasmine Cephas Jones and executed produced by Antoine Fuqua, #FreeRayshawn is the powerful Quibi series about an innocent man (James) suspected of being involved in the death of a police officer. After barricading himself in his apartment with his girlfriend (Jones) and young son, a standoff between Rayshawn and the SWAT team plays out on social media while Lt. Poincy (Fishburne) tries to maintain peace and exonerate him before it is too late.
The series earned three Emmy nominations for its leads -- Fishburne, James and Jones -- in the Short Form Comedy or Drama Series acting categories as a record number of Black performers were nominated while timely shows like American Son, Hollywood, Insecure and Watchmen were recognized in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Debuting on the new streaming platform in April, #FreeRayshawn also came out just over one month before the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, which spawned a cultural reckoning around the nation -- and the world.
“We don’t have a crystal ball, so we could not have predicted what happened to Mr. Floyd. And yet, we know as Black Americans that this is part of the reality of being a Black person in this country so as much as it’s a case of art imitating life, it’s life imitating art too,” Fishburne tells ET’s Kevin Frazier.
The Matrix star adds that the series is a reminder of what’s happening around the country. “Rayshawn is George Floyd, Rayshawn is Breonna Taylor. Rayshawn is Tamir Rice and all of the other names,” he says. “He is all of the people who have been senselessly and needlessly killed for the, you know, the dumbest reason in the world.”
“It’s quite powerful,” James adds. “The reason why we [need] projects like this is because it speaks to the nature of the world we live in and, you know, unfortunately we’ve seen this before. George Floyd isn’t the first instance of police brutality or police killing an unarmed Black man and so I think that when you go into a project like this, there’s a level of responsibility that you take on and, you know, a level of truth, a level of justice that you want to bring to these characters, understanding that they are fictitious characters but they’re representing real people’s circumstances.”
That sentiment wasn’t lost on Jones, who was also part of Hamilton’s original Broadway cast recently featured in the Disney+ film. “Everybody brought literally a piece of themselves to this role,” the actress says. “We all worked together and collaborated together and kind of like rolled up our sleeves and dived into this really, really important piece.”
She adds that the nominations are recognition for everyone who worked so hard on this series and to make it “be as truthful as possible.”
Admittedly, when #FreeRayshawn first came out, it was part of Quibi’s initial slate of original series that included everything from Anna Kendrick’s road trip comedy about a sex doll to the reboot of Reno 911! when the streaming platform launched in the spring. At the time, no one knew if it was even Emmy eligible or how it would land with audiences. “But you know, [it’s] obviously an incredible, incredible thing when you’re able to do a labor of love like this [and] to have it be acknowledged in this way,” James says.
“This was really, really a powerful piece and I think the proof is in the Emmy nominations,” Fishburne says. And when it comes to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against police brutality and systemic racism leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the longtime actor adds, “I’m encouraged by the outcry for change and I believe with all my heart that we have the opportunity to make the change we want to see happen come November.”