‘Reasonable Doubt’ creator Raamla Mohamed breaks down the show’s first season on Hulu
From the WNBA to a career in TV, the former ‘Scandal’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ writer shares the inspiration behind the show
When showrunner Raamla Mohamed had a vision of portraying the story of a powerhouse attorney, she was “instinctual” about how she wanted it to unfold.
“Everything I do is based on how I feel about something, just my instincts,” Mohamed said.
The show, Reasonable Doubt, wraps up its first season on Hulu on Tuesday.
Inspired by real-life attorney Shawn Holley and Jay-Z’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt, the series is a mix of romance, criminal justice and Black culture.
The main character, Jax Stewart, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, is a mother who juggles marital woes, parenthood, a high-stakes legal career and complicated friendships. The series also stars Michael Ealy, Sean Patrick Thomas, Pauletta Washington and McKinley Freeman.
“She is a very successful attorney,” Mohamed said. “She’s kind of going through some ups and downs, I’ll say, in her marriage and personal life. So we get to follow that part of her home, I like to say.”
Through the series, the Los Angeles native has created opportunities for Black women to shine in front of and behind the cameras while giving the world a glimpse of the parts of Black LA that are not often shown.
We sat down with Mohamed, an alum of the Shondaland television production company created by producer/director Shonda Rhimes, to discuss her journey in the entertainment industry and what it’s like working with actress Kerry Washington.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started in the entertainment industry?
Well, it was kind of a long road. I went to Columbia University in New York and majored in English and film studies. During that time in the summers, I worked for the Los Angeles Sparks WBNA team and worked on promotions and halftime entertainment. That was, I guess, my first entertainment job. After college, I worked in theater as an assistant and then realized I wanted to write. I thought I wanted to write plays. I didn’t really know that people could actually get paid to write. I figured you would get paid a little bit, but I didn’t realize you can make a career of it. I decided to apply to USC for grad school and I did the TV writing MFA program, which then kind of led me to get a job as a writer’s PA [production assistant] on Grey’s Anatomy Season Six, and that kind of started my Shondaland career. I then ended up a writer on Scandal, and that was a big break and a huge show to work on. It was uphill from there!
How important was it for you to incorporate Windsor Hills, your hometown, into the show?
It was very important. It’s a very special area of Black LA. There’s not a lot of areas even in a country like this, where you have the level of Black professionals and Black wealth, and some of it for generations, in one area. And for me, as someone who went to a predominantly white high school, it was nice to come back home after [college] or on the weekends and be around such Black excellence. So I really wanted to portray that in a TV show.
Jay-Z fans will recognize the title of the series, named after his debut album. Can you give us the background behind this name choice and how it played out in the series?
So, Reasonable Doubt was one of my favorite albums. I remember in high school when I first listened to it, it just was something that I’d never heard before. It was very unique. It had these jazzy influences, but it was talking about streets, but also this maturity to it. And I really do feel like in a lot of ways, Jax kind of embodies a little bit of that. She’s a lot of different things at once. And so, of course, it was a legal show and I was thinking, what could the title be? She’s a defense attorney, so she has to talk about reasonable doubt. And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s perfect.’
I’m just in general a huge music fan. I’m sure you can see just even the first two episodes, I scripted the songs in the show to make sure that everyone understood what the vibe was going to be. Like, ending with Outkast’s ‘Liberation,’ it was important to me to know what the mood and the tone were, and so everyone could get a sense of what I was trying to do.
What was your thinking behind ensuring that Black people were involved in every part of the show?
When we talk about diversity, a lot of times it is on screen, which is great — I think it’s important to have diversity on screen. But what about behind the scenes? What about the people who are working on the show? So I have an all-Black writers room, all-Black directors … and it’s not just because, oh, it’s a cool or cute thing to say. It’s really because I wanted to reflect what was on screen. I mean, 90% of my cast is Black, and if not, it’s people of color. So what you’re seeing on screen, behind the scenes, you have to also have people who understand the many facets of who we’re trying to represent.
So besides the writers and directors, our costume designer is Black, our production designer, a lot of heads of departments, one of our alternating DPs [directors of photography], cinematographers, our colorists — [the one who] does color timing is Black, [we have] a Black gaffer. These roles [aren’t] traditionally ones that you might see [Black people have] in Hollywood. Also, I wanted to make sure that when people walk on set, whether it’s the actors or other crew, they don’t feel like an ‘other,’ you know? You saw all different types of people, Black PA to Black showrunner, but also Latinx and Asian, just a mix of what Los Angeles looks like. That was important to me. I think it created a very respectful work environment and … kind of cut the assumptions, I’ll say.
How did you know Corinealdi was the right person to tell this story?
She auditioned and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s her!’ It just felt so right, and she nailed it so hard. I mean, it’s such a hard character. She has to be not only this brilliant attorney, but she has to be sexy and funny. You have to believe that she has Black friends, that she says the N-word realistically. There are a lot of facets to this character, and Emayatzy really nailed all of them believably.
Tell us some of your history as a writer.
Well, I started as a staff writer on Scandal. That was my first credit. And then I worked on a show called Still Star-Crossed that was on ABC, and went on to work on Little Fires Everywhere. And so I say that I’ve been very lucky to have written on shows that I was a fan of. And also becoming a showrunner or becoming a creator of a TV show, doesn’t happen overnight. If I think about the kind of writer I was early on with Scandal, even my early scenes, I probably would be like, ‘Oh, my God, this isn’t great.’ But that’s what experience is about. That’s what learning is about, and learning from great writers. Scandal had some of the best writers I ever worked with besides Shonda Rhimes, who’s this brilliant storyteller.
Speaking of Little Fires Everywhere, what was your experience working with Kerry Washington and how was she a part of this project?
I met Kerry in 2011, I guess it was when Scandal was on. And I felt like that was the first time she was No. 1 on a TV show. This was the first time I was a writer on a TV show, so I feel like we both were learning how to be on this show, and we got to know each other well. And when she did Little Fires Everywhere, she kind of pulled me aside and she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m doing this show with Reese Witherspoon.’ I was like, ‘Oh, congratulations.’ And she’s like, ‘No, no, I’m telling you [because] I want you to be a part of it, to write on it.’
What do you want people to take away from the new series?
Honestly, I watch TV to be inspired or to find joy. I love watching television, so I just want people to have something to look forward to. It’s been a rough few years, I think, for a lot of us, and these moments of joy, I really don’t take for granted. They mean a lot to me. And whether that comes from being around friends or family or whether it is just sitting down and eating a good meal and watching a good show or reading a good book, whatever it is, I am just happy to contribute to that and be in the zeitgeist somehow.
How would you encourage other Black women who want to get into the entertainment business?
I really believe in networking. And when I say networking, I’m not saying trying to find the top person, but a lot of the people that I became friends with or got to know in the industry were my peers — people who were other assistants or staff writers. Reading a bunch of scripts if you want to be a writer, watching a bunch of movies and TV shows if you want to be a director. Now there are so many more ways to create content. I feel like I watch Instagram or TikTok things or whatever and see these creators who are doing really hilarious, funny content just in their house. So I think if that’s something you want to do, then start creating your own content and get yourself out there.
And if you want to be a writer or director, look at the programs. There are a lot of fellowships and scholarships or competitions that are helpful for people of color. So, that would be my advice. And also don’t give up. It’s hard whether you’re a Black woman, man, whatever it is. I tell people … not everyone’s going to understand the commitment to the dream, but don’t give up, and keep going. Because if you do keep going, even if it feels like it’s going to take a long time, it will happen.