Norman Lear on His Docuseries, America Divided: ‘We Wanted It to Be Cinematic’

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Norman Lear has created multiple television shows that have taken on racial and societal injustices — but soon he will be in front of the camera instead, as one of the correspondents on the Epix documentary series, America Divided. Each episode of the series — which Lear executive-produces, along with Common and Shonda Rhimes — will feature a celebrity reporting on mass incarceration, drugs, and other issues. Lear’s episode deals with the gentrification-and-housing crisis in New York, with the TV icon going undercover and using a hidden camera to expose racial discrimination. During the show’s Television Critics Association panel on Saturday, Lear said he discovered he's “a really great reporter” while filming it.

He also told journalists that he had thought we’d be past such issues by now, when he was creating and developing series like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude back in the 1970s and '80s. “It amazes me that we haven’t moved faster,” he said. “Adjacent to that problem is the LGBTQ issue, which just moved so quickly over the last 30 years and is in a place now where we wish the racial situation existed. Racial harmony wants to be moving as far forward in the next decade or two as the LGBTQ movement did.”

Other names who anchor episodes of the series, premiering September 30, include Rosario Dawson, who will look at the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and Jesse Williams, who will explore the problems in America’s schools. “We knew way before [Jesse] made that BET speech that he’s a real activist in Black Lives Matter,” said executive producer Solly Granatstein. “He made that speech at a time when the country was really focused on these issues, and I hope this series has the same impact.”

Of the choice to use celebrities as correspondents, Lear explained, “We felt it was a formula that really worked, in getting people’s attention … We wanted it to be a cinematic series — even though it’s unscripted, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic series.”