Nipsey looms large in 'All American’ premiere

AN INDELIBLE IMPRESSION: From left, Daniel Ezra as Spencer and Bre - Z as Coop in The CW series "All American." Ali Goldstein/The CW/Tribune News Service

LOS ANGELES – In the season premiere of the CW’s “All American” Monday night, there’s no escaping the presence that looms as large over the episode as the series’ many drone shots from high above Los Angeles: the death of Nipsey Hussle.

Born Ermias Asghedom, the rapper, entrepreneur and philanthropist was gunned down at 33 in front of his Crenshaw store in March. Months later, the community he called home remains shaken by the loss of a gifted artist and force for positive change.

As a show that strives to reflect its setting, “All American” has long maintained a connection to Hussle. His music features in the pilot episode (“Grinding All My Life”), and the show’s characters wear clothing from Hussle’s shop, the Marathon, amid story lines involving family, relationships and football. The series’ British-born star, Daniel Ezra, was a Hussle fan and has spoken of using interviews with the rap star to shape his American accent. Before scheduling conflicts got in the way, Hussle was even slated to appear in the Season 1 finale.

“Nipsey had always been woven into the DNA of our show, because we kind of consider it a love letter to South L.A.,” said showrunner and executive producer Nkechi Okoro Carroll in a telephone interview. “And it doesn’t get more Crenshaw than Nipsey.”

With the Season 2 premiere, “Hussle and Motivate,” “All American” pays its respects.

“Nipsey passing away completely shifted my axis for Season 2,” said Carroll. “The influence he has on the youth in that area and how they pursue their dreams and how they fight for what they deserve – our show has always kind of been about that.”

Created by April Blair, who stepped down midway through the first season and was replaced by Carroll, “All American,” based on the story of former NFL player Spencer Paysinger, is of a piece with the CW’s string of popular, occasionally soapy teen dramas, from “Dawson’s Creek” to “The O.C.” But from the moment the new season begins, with Hussle’s “Blue Laces 2” scoring the creation of a new street mural in honor of the slain rapper, “All American” stakes out new ground.

“Things will never be the same around here,” Coop (Bre-Z) tells Spencer (Ezra) as they gravely look on. Based on the nature of the tribute along the spine of Monday’s episode, it’s tempting to think of the series the same way.

Painted by Keenan Chapman, the artist behind a number of Hussle’s tattoos, the mural echoes the many memorials that have risen around the city since his death. Created after the production consulted with Chapman and Hussle’s family, the mural unfortunately exists only in the world of “All American.” (The work had to be painted over four hours after its completion, Carroll says with some regret.)

“[Chapman] was the one that got the family on board with our paying tribute to Nipsey, because I didn’t want to do it if it all upset anyone,” Carroll adds. “It’s all so fresh.”

Eventually, the focus returns to “All American’s” established story lines – Spencer weighing a return to Crenshaw High after winning a championship for Beverly Hills – and its many fraught relationships, including the return of Spencer’s father (Corey James) and the struggles of his coach, Billy Baker (Taye Diggs).

But it’s in reckoning with Hussle’s death where “All American” shows its strength.

Midway through the episode, the series stages a candlelight vigil at Crete Academy’s newly completed basketball court memorial in Hyde Park. Painted bright blue with Hussle’s profile at the center, the location gives the episode a moving sense of place while respecting the emotions still tied to Hussle’s nearby store, which after his death drew pilgrimages from fans before being fenced off this summer.

“The truth is, the Marathon store is kind of a burial ground,” Carroll said. “We wanted the vigil to be somewhere that meant something to Nipsey’s family and to the community.”

The vigil may be fictional but the set, adorned with images of Hussle and his charitable work, still functioned as a place to grieve. “The first moment I walked on set was the first time I saw what [production designers] did,” Carroll said. “I was crying, our lead actor Daniel Ezra – who will probably kill me for saying this – but I looked over because he had gone so still, and he was crying.

“So many people from the community just came out to be able to just stand there and watch us shoot,” she added. “It really was a moment where, no matter where you’re from, who you are or what affiliation you have, everyone came out that day to pay respects.”

The scene is marked by a powerful eulogy delivered by Flip Williams (Lahmard Tate), whose message of uplift later helps Coop avoid becoming a victim of gang violence as well. Her arc, which will find her exploring music as a means to express herself, ensures “All American” will maintain a connection to Hussle throughout the new season. For Carroll, echoes from this episode go on as well.

“That image of Nipsey, surrounded by all the candlelight – my assistant had that image blown up, matted and framed, and [it] hangs in my office,” Carroll said. “That vigil forever lives with me.”

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