TV and film screenwriter and producer Aaron Rahsaan Thomas has used his time in the business entertaining audiences while bridging gaps between disparate groups. As the co-creator and former showrunner for the reboot of the ongoing CBS police drama S.W.A.T., Aaron provides a new perspective on working as a Black showrunner with a series focused on the lives of the police.
Developed by Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and Shawn Ryan, S.W.A.T. follows an African American Sergeant Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson (Shemar Moore) caught between his loyalty to the Los Angeles community he grew up in and his allegiance to his fellow police officers.
While S.W.A.T. has been renewed for a fifth season, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas has decided to move on from the show to pursue new creative opportunities.
I recently had the chance to speak with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas about his experience as a Black showrunner on a series like S.W.A.T. and what he’s learned from working in Hollywood.
Who is Aaron Rahsaan Thomas?
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas grew up in Kansas City, Kansas with a deep love of storytelling. After studying at Morehouse College, the University of Kansas, and the University of Southern California, Aaron was selected among several applicants for the CBS Writers Mentoring Program.
While he is best known for S.W.A.T., Aaron Rahsaan Thomas has spent his career writing and producing popular shows that have impacted the Hollywood industry. He first worked as a writer’s assistant for the TV series Soul Food and joined the writing staff for the hit TV show Friday Night Lights, where he won a Peabody Award.
His talents extend from working on shows like CSI: NY, Numb3rs, and serving as a producer for series including Southland, Sleepy Hollow, and The Get Down. He’s also embarked on the silver screen, writing screenplays for films like Cover and Assassination Games and directing an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, Trojan War.
When speaking with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, I was fortunate to gain insight into the powerful and passionate mind of the showrunner. His work continues to inspire many.
S.W.A.T. tackles the complexities as an African American cop in the present day
S.W.A.T. exists in an era where tensions between the police and Black people are at an all-time high. Using his own experiences witnessing breakdowns between different communities, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas wanted to create a character that could have the power to foster a connection between law enforcement and underrepresented communities.
“I had the idea for a character, an African American cop, who understood what it was like to be a Black man in America and also to be a police officer,” he says. “I thought about a character being in the middle of that, and understanding both sides of that, and, and trying in his own way to navigate it and improve communications as much as possible.”
S.W.A.T. influences other police shows to have conversations around police brutality
After the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, there have been more conversations around the presence of systemic racism and lack of reform in the police. A part of that conversation includes mainstream TV cop shows and the implications around their portrayal of law enforcement.
In November 2020, S.W.A.T. introduced its 4th season by addressing the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in relation to the Rodney King verdict and L.A. riots in 1992. In the 1st episode, Hondo and his father, Daniel Sr. (Obba Babatundé), remember their experience during the riots and argue over whether there has been enough progress in the force.
While Aaron Rahsaan Thomas had doubts about creating this narrative around Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, it was time to tell these kinds of stories. “I was even guilty of this idea of whether or not audiences and frankly, the business would be ready to try to tell police stories in a different way,” he explains. “Surprisingly, from the beginning, there was a team of people around who wanted to tell stories in a different way to try to add a little bit of nutritional value to the entertainment.”
The national conversation around police brutality has shifted how law enforcement dramas present cops, with more of a complex definition of the idea of a hero and the blatant need for police reform. Did S.W.A.T. help influence that shift? Aaron Rahsaan Thomas believes there’s a ripple effect. “I think our show is part of that, and we take great pride in that,” he says.
What he stresses, though, is the importance of empathy when creating stories. “We do hope that there’s more of an attention to detail and to try and look at stories from a wider point of view,” Aaron emphasizes, “and taking into account different perspectives that in the past either weren’t thought about or were kind of disregarded and swept under the rug.”
How S.W.A.T. has redefined Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’s perceptions
Since S.W.A.T.’s premiere in 2017, a national reckoning on systemic racism has caused more people to join the discussion around police brutality. Aaron Rahsaan Thomas uses the analogy that before 2020, it felt like a room with closed doors, where he and others had conversations, but no one else cared.
“Then all of a sudden 2020 happens, and it felt like a flash mob. People rushed in to join the conversation all of a sudden, where a lot more people wanted to have an understanding of how to have the conversation,” he says.
Still, Aaron’s perceptions have stayed the same. He has a responsibility to share his thoughts with the world. “There’s always a way to bridge gaps and to try to increase and improve communication,” he explains, “With more ears that are open, I think there are more avenues now, perhaps, to try to tell stories that just weren’t available before.”
Although Aaron shared he’s moved on to different opportunities after S.W.A.T’s fourth season, he feels that there are even more avenues to create diverse stories.
S.W.A.T. has given Aaron Rahsaan Thomas something he always wanted: a Black male action star on TV
Along with tough yet essential conversations around the role of the law, S.W.A.T. fills its time with Emmy nominated action-packed sequences. You won’t go 5 minutes without loud explosions, intense car chases, and skillful fight choreography. To Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, that kind of fast-paced action with a Black male action star in the center means everything.
According to Aaron, S.W.A.T’s leading man Hondo is “not only kickass but also deals with real issues.” “When I was a kid, there was nothing like that at all, so I’m just really proud that that exists,” he says.
Because of Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and S.W.A.T., young children can watch people that look like them on screen in powerful roles. This impacts not only how these children will see themselves but how others will see them too.
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas on staying grounded: “I try not to take myself too seriously.”
With a year like 2020, it’s easy to get lost in work while trying to avoid the chaos around. Although Aaron Rahsaan Thomas continued developing S.W.A.T., he made it a priority to remember to stay connected to the world around him. Not only is he a showrunner, but he is a parent, husband, friend, and brother.
“I’m a piece in a larger tapestry,” he explains, “and that can be very humbling a lot of the time in a good way.”
Of course, we all have challenging days, but Aaron reminds himself of his mantra that “there’s always someone who, in theory, has it worse.”
In the end, for him, it’s all about perspective and how you take advantage of the resources you’ve been given.
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas shares his advice for young aspiring filmmakers
While Aaron Rahsaan Thomas offered endless advice for young people aspiring to make it in Hollywood, one particular comment stood out. There’s all this focus on getting your big break, but what do you do if it finally happens?
“The struggle continues every step of the way, on every level of a career,” he reveals. “The sooner you embrace the idea that there’s always going to be doubts and challenges, the better.”
Although rejection is expected, Aaron believes pushing through all the no’s could help you win a “yes.” “Look at it as part of the process. It’s kind of like gaining stars in a way,” he adds.
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and the optimistic future of Hollywood
Calling himself an optimist, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas sees a lot of hope for Hollywood. In an industry like show business, there will always be people interested in making their marks. For Aaron, that’s inspiring.
“I think one of the great things about our business is that it tends to collect the dreamers,” he reveals. “The people who were the creative dreamers in your community, your high school, whatever, those are the people that tend to try out their hand at some point in this crazy business.”
In Hollywood, creators’ passion for their projects shows Aaron that the industry is fighting to protect the hope of improvement. “It is something that’s contagious,” he asserts. “When you carry yourself in a way where you hope to do great things, people tend to respond to that.
What’s next for Aaron Rahsaan Thomas?
Aaron Rahsaan Thomas shares that he has some exciting new secret projects up his sleeve.
“There are several things that I’m really looking forward to with the idea again, of entertaining, and also engaging audiences,” he says, “and so you can be rest assured that the things that I’m looking to do, will carry through on that idea. I’m excited about the possibilities.”
Although we aren’t sure of Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’s specific plans, we can’t wait to see how his creativity and intellect continue to make the world a better place.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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