From Black excellence to the high stakes of college athletics, All American: Homecoming is making the students of Bringston University “the A story.” 

By Alamin Yohannes
July 08, 2021 at 06:02 PM EDT
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All American: Homecoming star Geffri Maya puts it simply: "Kids that look like me deserve to be glorified and to be a lead."

Which is exactly All American showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll's goal in trying to expand that universe, by providing "an authentic portrayal of the world through the lens of Black youth" that was different from the mothership. Thinking about the diversity of Blackness across America alone, All American: Homecoming was born. Set at Bringston University, the new CW series — which just aired its backdoor pilot as part of All American's third season — follows college students, including Maya's Simone Hicks and baseball prodigy Damon Sims (played by Legacies alum Peyton Alex Smith), as they navigate the transformative experience of college at a historically Black college or university.

"The L.A. version of Black culture isn't necessarily the same as New York, which is not the same as the South, which is not the same as the Midwest," Carroll says. "When I started looking at the best way to speak to that diversity that exists within our Blackness, it's on a campus like an HBCU campus."

Growing up, Carroll wasn't familiar with HBCUs. The Cosby Show spin-off A Different World, which followed the students at HBCU Hillman College for six seasons starting in 1987, was the gateway to her education about their history. These institutions aren't featured and celebrated as often in shows and movies as schools like Harvard, Princeton, or Juilliard. But since A Different World, films including Drumline and Stomp the Yard, and more recently the BET drama The Quad, have put them in the spotlight. Not to mention the attention put on them thanks to, as Carroll points out, "Madam Vice President Harris and Stacey Abrams, and all these amazing people who are making a difference in the world right now that graduated from HBCUs."

All American: Homecoming
Sylvester Powel and Peyton Alex Smith in 'All American: Homecoming'
| Credit: Bill Inoshita/The CW

And now, there's All American: Homecoming. "This is my way of hoping I can introduce the HBCU experience and widen the horizon for our youth as a whole," shares Carroll, who wants young Black viewers to see more examples of this critical period of life on screen. "I'm completely surrounded by people who went to HBCUs, and [they have this] sense of finding themselves and finding a place where they felt permission to be whatever version of Black they were and really explore what that means."

For All American: Homecoming star Maya, it's all about the responsibility of telling the story of Simone and her classmates well. "These kids, especially kids that look like me, deserve to be inspired, celebrated, and motivated. And to be part of something so monumental matters to me," she says. While Maya went to Clark Atlanta University and had her own HBCU experience, she's excited to see what the writers come up with because she knows her experience is different from someone who went to other HBCUs like Howard University or Spelman College.

Through its characters, All American: Homecoming plans to show how young adults find themselves at college. As seen in the backdoor pilot, Simone and Damon are both making choices that push their parents' boundaries: He's an elite athlete choosing to join Bringston University's baseball team after a massive scandal; she's planning to attend a college that isn't in her mom's plans for her. They are both "dealing with the consequences of making the decisions that feel right for them," says Carroll, "and I'm looking forward to exploring that quarter-life crisis that happens as you become a young adult."

From Black Greek life to music and art to Black excellence, Carroll is excited to explore all of what college, and HBCUs in particular, has to offer its students. Whether it's excellence in sports, the arts, or academia, the characters on the show are "elites in their own way." Like Simone's aunt Amara (Kelly Jenrette) and pre-med student Keisha McCalla (Netta Walker), who excel in academics. In addition to crushing her coursework, Keisha is also passionate about dance. Coming from a family of doctors who want her to follow in their footsteps, her journey is similar to Simone's and Damon's. One of the first things we learn about Keisha is that she's the choreographer who put together an iconic routine for the homecoming fashion show during the pilot, and the show will continue to delve into the world of performance art to see if she can make a career out of what her family considers a hobby.

All American: Homecoming
Kelly Jenrette as Amara and Geffri Maya as Simone.
| Credit: Bill Inoshita/The CW

Through Amara, who's a Bringston alum and journalism professor on track for tenure, audiences will learn more about HBCU's legacy. While she fiercely fights to help her students through this transformational period in their lives, she's also protective of the school and its reputation. When she exposes the baseball coach's cheating scandal, she makes clear that when something is wrong at Bringston, they clean up their own house. "[Amara] sees herself as being a life educator for her students and the responsibilities that come with that," Carroll explains. "There's a side of college where people are figuring out who they're going to be in life and what they want to do career-wise."

In another classroom scene, Amara and her students discuss objectivity, ethics, and the nuances of being a Black journalist. "They're going to dive into the additional burden of being a Black journalist, and how that might put an extra burden on you in terms of a moral or ethical perspective just because the world may not be seeing through the same lens," Carroll explains. "Those kinds of deeper conversations you don't necessarily get into in [predominately white institutions]."

As a member of the show's fictional fraternity Kappa Epsilon Kappa, Jessie "JR" Raymond will be viewers' way into the world of Black Greek life. Through JR, and other characters, All American: Homecoming will provide a look at life living in a frat house, the pledging process, and finding a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood. It will also delve into what that means for those entering into Greek life: both the deep ties they form and "the expense that it comes at because half of the characters are athletes, which is kind of its own fraternity or sorority," according to Carroll.

Simone, Damon, and tennis player Thea Mays (Camille Hyde) will fight to make an impact as they "authentically portray what that life is like for student-athletes at that collegiate level." Achieving that type of excellence takes its toll, especially for those who have been working since they were children. The show will explore the impact it had on them and ask whether it was worth it. With Simone and Thea, the stories of Naomi Osaka and Serena and Venus Williams served as an inspiration. Simone's tennis career will be explored as a way to pay homage to what those groundbreaking athletes have achieved.

All American: Homecoming
Credit: Erik Voake/The CW

While current real-life debates are happening across the country — even in Congress — about whether critical race theory has a place in the classroom, there's no question how it factors into All American: Homecoming. The new series will continue the universe's work to incorporate the history of Black people that many may not know. "My writers [and I] take a lot of pride in infusing both shows with additional facts about us as a people, our history, our culture because it's important. So much of people's sense of self and identity comes from what they think their history is," Carroll explains. We see that in the backdoor pilot when Simone and Olivia discuss historical alumni and how their contributions are not often covered in the school they attend back in Beverly Hills. The hallway of famous alumni and what it signifies to Bringston will be a "focal point" of the show.

"We have an HBCU where discussions about race, Blackness, and the role it plays in you, and all these different subject matters, [are] explored as part of the curriculum," Carroll says. "And that's really exciting for me."

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