Soledad O’Brien interviews Reverend James Irby of Beaufort County, South Carolina, where legal loopholes and soaring taxes are leading to a loss of land and culture.
On BET's Disrupt and Dismantle, Emmy-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien investigates stories of systemic racism against Black Americans by talking, as she explains, to "real people with real problems."
Each hour of the six-episode docuseries — shot in big cities like Dallas, Nashville and Chicago as well as in towns and rural comunities in Mississippi, Virginia and South Carolina — intercuts current narratives with sequences of historical context.
"My audience is in the car with me, watching and hearing these people's stories. The historical data is essential to understanding what's happening now," says O'Brien, an upbeat yet incisive interviewer as well as an executive producer of the series. "All change begins with disruption and dismantling," she says, explaining the show's title. "It's about the conversation."
The series, which premiered in February, delves into disturbing issues of Black life, including the school-to-prison pipeline, the need for police reform, housing and maternal health.
One particularly horrifying story relates a mistaken police raid on an innocent woman in her own home (unlike Breonna Taylor, who died in a similar incident, the Chicago woman survived to fight back). At the end of each episode, viewers are encouraged to visit the show's website, where they'll find ways to work toward solutions.
O'Brien is now in her 10th year as CEO of Soledad O'Brien Productions, which makes series — including Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien (for the Hearst Network) — and documentaries such as Black and Blue and War Comes Home (for CNN) as well as Kids Behind Bars and Heroin USA (for Al Jazeera America).
Her ideas for Disrupt and Dismantle started percolating while making her critically acclaimed Black in America documentary specials for CNN from 2008 to 2012. When she brought the new concept to BET, Tiffany Lea Williams, the network's executive vice-president for unscripted programming and development, pushed back: "You need to talk about solutions."
With Covid protocols, Disrupt and Dismantle went into production in November 2020. "We are honored she partnered with us," Williams says, "and proud of Soledad and the team's work showcasing what happens when a community comes together to make a change."
In June 2020, BET and its corporate partners launched a $25 million multiplatform social-impact initiative, Content for Change, to address systemic racism and inequities and to foster civic participation. "I have always felt supported by BET, even before I worked there," O'Brien says.
The biggest challenge facing Disrupt and Dismantle, O'Brien says, has already been met: the show made it to air. Depicting Black lives that defy stereotypes has long been a goal of hers, and one she's followed along the journey she calls "my own ambitious and audacious path."
Also executive-producing Disrupt and Dismantle with Soledad O'Brien are Jo Honig and Randy Ferrell. Catch-up viewing of the series is available on BET.com.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2021