T.L. Thompson and Brittany Adebumola in 4400
When writer-producer Ariana Jackson (UnREAL, Riverdale) got a call last year about developing a reboot of The 4400, the sci-fi series that ran on the USA Network for four seasons, she balked.
Covid was intensifying, and she had her hands full with a job, two kids and a family situation.
But Jackson, who grew up watching sci-fi with her dad, loved the original show, which begins when 4,400 people who'd vanished over a span of decades reappear with special powers and no memory of what happened. And when CBS Studios said they wanted to tell The 4400 through a Black lens, Jackson found it hard to say no.
"I couldn't stop thinking about it," says Jackson, who became an executive producer and coshowrunner of the new series, 4400, debuting October 25 on The CW. "I loved the idea of speaking to the Black American experience through this lens of history, time travel and powers. I had to do it."
As in the original, the 4,400 who return (this time, to present-day Detroit) are from various points in time, allowing 4400 to examine history and Black identity through myriad perspectives. Brittany Adebumola plays a lawyer from the early aughts; T.L. Thompson portrays a World War I army surgeon fresh from the Harlem Renaissance; Jaye Ladymore plays a figure from the Mississippi civil rights movement; Khailah Johnson is a misunderstood reality TV star.
"They are seeing how other people are used to being in the world, what they were allowed to be," Jackson explains, "They're learning from each other."
Like HBO's Watchmen and Lovecraft Country — which raised awareness of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 — 4400 is revisiting history that's been ignored. "One of the big things we talk about is time, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. We're a country that refuses to reckon with our white supremacist origins; we keep doing the same things over and over again. [Here] we're showcasing history as it was, as opposed to history how it has been told to us."
The show explores the LGBTQ+ influence on the Harlem Renaissance, which Jackson acknowledges has been deemphasized, even in Black history curricula.
"It was important to show the queerness of the Harlem Renaissance — how those spaces have been around for a long time." Suffice it to say, Jackson is happy she said yes. And the timing couldn't have been better. Not only did the protests of 2020 increase the demand for Black stories, but the enthusiastic responses to Watchmen and Lovecraft Country demonstrated a real hunger for Black voices in sci-fi, which has traditionally lacked diversity.
"Sci-fi is about possibilities," Jackson says. "And for so long, not seeing Black and brown faces in sci-fi [sent] a message that there is no possibility for people who look like you. One of the exciting things about our show is hearing Black people with powers — people who have agency and the ability to shape their own future and the world — say, 'The future can look different. The future can break the cycle, and the future can be full of hope. For everybody.'"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2021