Nadine Ellis and Morris Chestnut as Leah and Raymond Dupont in Our Kind of People
On the set not long ago for Our Kind of People — the new Fox series about elite, powerful Black Americans on Martha's Vineyard — writer–executive producer–showrunner Karin Gist had an affirming chance encounter.
"I sat down next to this young African-American man, an extra," she recalls. "He started talking about how proud he was to be a part of the team, and how he went home and looked up [one of the high-society rites depicted in the previous day's scenes]. And then he said, 'And what do you do on the show?'"
Gist, who adapted the series from Lawrence Otis Graham's nonfiction 1999 bestseller Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class, wasn't bothered by the faux pas. On the contrary, she was thrilled that the young man's eyes were opened — as so many others will be — to a world of Black wealth, prestige and tight social codes.
"It was such a special moment," she says. "I saw the impact the scene made. Images matter, and I take that very seriously."
Gist has been making meaningful imagery for a long time. A native of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, she started her television career as a writer on The CW's influential hit Girlfriends in the early 2000s after working for a few years as a family-law attorney. Even that was about storytelling, she says. "You're crafting a story: the good guy, the bad guy, who gets the kids. It's like a soapy drama, but in a courtroom. I pulled from a lot of that."
She went on to write and produce for One Tree Hill, House of Lies and Revenge; she was a coexecutive producer on Grey's Anatomy when she got the call to run Lee Daniels's Star.
Now, after showrunning ABC's mixed-ish, Gist has reunited with Daniels; he's an executive producer on Our Kind of People, where she values his guiding hand and his legacy: "He lets me do my thing, but he's a support in terms of making sure the stories are grounded and real. With Empire, he opened a world of dynamic, soapy, flawed characters and he made America stand up and look at it."
Now it's her turn to serve America a slice of soapy, flawed Black life, with a fictional story rooted in a real enclave that's unknown to many.
Set in Oak Bluffs — where well-to-do and well-known African Americans (from Paul Robeson to Spike Lee) have vacationed since the late 19th century — Our Kind of People stars Yaya DaCosta (Chicago Med) as Angela Vaughn, a strong-willed single mom out to make a splash in Vineyard society. She soon finds that social codes and family secrets make the costs of penetrating this bourgeois bubble higher than she ever imagined.
"A lot of our characters are feeling like they're in a gilded cage," Gist says. "The conversations are around access, privilege, what 'Black excellence' looks like and challenging notions of what that is. And how, no matter how much money you have, family is family."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2021