Diarra Kilpatrick on ‘Diarra from Detroit,’ Soderbergh Influences, and Why Multihyphenates Matter in TV

Welcome to It’s a Hit! In this series, IndieWire speaks to creators and showrunners behind a few of our favorite television programs about the moment they realized their show was breaking big.

“Diarra from Detroit” starts simply enough. Months into a separation from her husband, Diarra Brickland (Diarra Kilpatrick) pushes herself into a blind date. It goes well — very well — but then she doesn’t hear from him. It’s like… poof. He’s gone. What happened? Is he busy? Sick? In trouble? Diarra’s friends mock her for ignoring the most obvious answer — she’s been ghosted — but the inquisitive school teacher can’t shake the feeling that something else is going on.

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She’s right, and “Diarra from Detroit,” available on BET+, gradually develops into a winding mystery, then a shocking thriller, then a tender romance. Soon, it’s living within all these genre at once, plus a hearty helping of comedy thrown in to keep everyone honest. Lush colors splash across pop-up nightclubs and seedy card games. Diarra’s voice narrates what’s going on in her active, sleep-deprived imagination. One clue leads to the next, forming a puzzle the size of the Motor City by the time the last piece clicks into place.

That the eight-episode first season comes together at all is a testament to the entire team’s diligent work. That each story engine fires on all cylinders — ceaselessly entertaining, tonally balanced, and a helluva good time — is a credit to the vision of its star, creator, producer, and writer, Diarra Kilpatrick.

“It was very much ‘Sex in the City’ meets ‘Chinatown,’ but drop the whole thing in chocolate,” Kilpatrick said of her original elevator pitch for the show, which originated from conversations she had about her 2017 digital series, “American Koko.”

“After I made that show, people kept asking me, ‘What was the more grounded version?’ And I remember being like, ‘I don’t know,'” Kilpatrick said. “Years later, I came back to it. It was kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s what people were asking me to do! I think they meant this.'”

Reactions indicate she’s right. Reviews are glowing, including raves from Rolling Stone and The Hollywood Reporter that call the series a “showcase” for Kilpatrick (who was most recently seen opposite Chris Chalk in HBO’s “Perry Mason” reboot). A premiere at Tribeca helped generate extra buzz (and prestige) for the series’ March debut on BET+, and fans have only been growing as “Diarra from Detroit” makes its way through awards season.

Below, Kilpatrick explains how her series made its way to streaming, when she realized she had a hit on her hands, and who is getting the biggest reactions so far. (OK, we’ll give you that one right now: It’s Phylicia Rashad.)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

After “American Koko,” what drove you to create “Diarra from Detroit”? What guided the idea forward?

I knew I wanted to do something that revolved around a P.I., and I wanted it to be more grounded. But I wanted it to be accessible to a wide audience. I feel like that’s one of my missions: that culturally specific work can be accessible to large audiences and diverse audiences. I wanted an accessible way in, so I wasn’t sure that I wanted to just have her start out as the P.I. This first season is really like an origin story.

And then I got little bits here and there. I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of ghosting. It’s my generation’s thing for sure, but because I’ve been with my husband since college, I missed the whole thing. When my friends tell me these stories, I’m like, “You mean he just up and disappeared?” I sound like someone’s aunt all the time. But this is a phenomenon that so many people are going through, and I wanted to touch on that. It seemed fun.

What kind of reactions did you get to pitching the show? What was that process like?

To be honest, it was a fairly painless process. It was really well-timed. [Executive producer] Kenya [Barris] called and said, “I’m going to BET studios. I’m bringing writers. Do you want to come? Do you have ideas?” And I had written this pitch in 2020 while I was pregnant in a pandemic with not much to do, so I went into the meeting saying, “Sure, I’d love to come here. Here’s the idea I’m most excited about.”

There were some notes. They wanted to see if Diarra coming from further away was more impactful — like, if her marriage had fallen apart in New York and she was coming [back to Detroit] — which felt a little less nuanced to me, but I tried it. There were a few little tiny things, but when I turned the pitch into the studio, they came back and said, “Oh, we’ve shared this with the people across the hall at the streamer, and they would like for you to do this at the streamer, and if you do it at the streamer, we’ll give you a script-to-series deal.”

Wanting to avoid a super-long development period felt wise, and also jumping at the opportunity to do something different at BET. I felt like there was a tremendous opportunity to utilize the name recognition of the brand, but to make work with a fair amount of artistic integrity — that was made with a broad audience in mind, but wasn’t going to skimp on cultural specificity.

So when did it first feel like you’d accomplished that? That you’d made something really special?

We didn’t have a lot of cheerleading on the show, so I really didn’t go like, “Oh, this is really good” until Tribeca.

Oh, wow.

There was not a lot of positive feedback as we were making it, so it was very disconcerting. It made you question your own gut a little bit. Miles [Orion Feldsott] — who ran the show with me and executive produced — was cutting the pilot while we were still shooting, and he kept telling me, “It’s good, it’s good!” But it didn’t really click until we were in the audience of Tribeca. They were just with it and so responsive.

And there was a group of my friends who I had done youth theater with. Some lived in New York, some came from Detroit, but they were occupying one of the front rows, and they loved it. And these are not– they’re assholes. They would’ve been vocal if they didn’t like it. But they were so happy. They were floating. So that night felt like, “Oh, this is good, I think.”

Diarra From Detroit: Season 1. Photo Credit: Vanessa Clifton/BET+
Phylicia Rashad in ‘Diarra From Detroit’Courtesy of Vanessa Clifton / BET+

Have you been surprised by any of the reactions so far?

Yeah, to Phylicia Rashad. People are so undone by the fact that she cusses, by the fact that she’s had sex before. People are just like, “When you handed her the script, how did you get her to say this?” I’m like, “She loved it!” She was excited. I didn’t realize her range was such a well-kept secret. And it’s also a beautiful thing, too, that people really think she’s their mother. I think people are having the same reaction as if their own mother were carrying a pistol and talking about fucking a Temptation, as they’re watching Phylicia Rashad do it. Somebody told me they had to cut off the TV, take a deep breath — after she cussed or something — and then turn it back on.

There are a million reasons for why this show has found an audience, but is there anything you specifically credit for it striking a chord?

I’m always writing from the point of view of the audience member. I love television, I love movies, and so I’m always looking for the thing I want to watch. Frankly, I was really into a lot of half-hour comedies that did brilliant versions of slice-of-life [stories] with very specific point of views. But as a new mother, I was also in a place where I wasn’t finishing them as much as I was before because I just needed something to hook me. I needed it to have a little more of an engine, be a little bit more propulsive. So I wanted to do my version of that, but flip it on its head a little bit and give people something more to hold onto.

And I think there is something special about the multihyphenate thing — when you’re starring in something and you wrote it. People respond to it because it’s not a group-think thing, where there’s a little bit of compromise everywhere. I started to feel that as we got into portions of things that were out of my hands, but there is something beautiful about being able to follow one thought all the way from inception to even a marketing image.

OK, as a movie and television fan, what would be on your Mount Rushmore of Detroit entertainment? What stories best represent your city?

Well, “Diarra From Detroit,” I have to say.

Good, good. Yes.

I would say, “Martin.” You have to go with “Martin”, even though it wasn’t shot in Detroit. And this is wild because it’s not set in Detroit, but “Beverly Hills Cop.” For me, he personifies that Detroit character: unabashedly himself, he has a code, he has an honor system, and he’s going to follow his particular honor system through no matter what. He’s not well-dressed — I will say that about Axel — but other than that, he feels very much like a Detroit guy. So I would put him in there and the scene between him and Gil Hill [as Inspector Todd], which does take place in Detroit, that alone [qualifies it].

I think it’s “Beverly Hills Cop 4,” is that what they’re doing? I was so mad. I had a fantasy of like, “Oh, I want to write ‘Beverly Hills Cop 4′” — where it’s actually set in Detroit, and he’s been in Beverly Hills and he comes back to Detroit to solve a crime. But he’s so Beverly Hills now that he needs a young female cop to actually show him what’s up around the city. But who knows what they’re going to do. That’s probably not it.

Hey, if it’s successful, they’ll need a fifth.

So that movie — “Beverly Hills Cop 5” written by me, and starring me and Eddie Murphy — that’s up there. And I have to give love to “Detroiters.” It’s really funny, and I think it really captures a very particular part of Detroit culture, which is our Detroit ads, which were its own thing. And I have a rivalry with Sammy [Richardson] since childhood that he doesn’t really subscribe to at all or care about at all. But I’m still hanging on to it because he refused to get out of my Big Bird chair at my birthday party. I believe we were like six or something. So I’ll put him on the opposite end [of Mount Rushmore].

Right, right, right. Yeah, keep him separate.

Oh, “Out of Sight.” Love “Out of Sight.” As Chioke [Nassor], who directed our pilot, was presenting, I knew he understood [the show] when he was talking about the first date between Chris and Diarra, and he was saying, “It could be ‘Out of Sight!'” That was exactly the scene I was thinking about when I wrote that scene, so I felt like, “OK, we’ll have a mind-meld. It’ll work out.”

So yeah, that would be mine. “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Detroiters,” “Diarra from Detroit,” “Martin,” and “Out of Sight.”

“Diarra from Detroit” is available on BET+.

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