The sixth episode of “Lessons in Chemistry” features a tense protest scene in which a Black majority are fighting to stop the construction of a freeway through their neighborhood.
Millicent Shelton, who directed Episodes 5 and 6 of the Apple TV+ series, unpacked the process of producing the sequence led by Elizabeth Zott’s (Brie Larson) neighbor Harriet Sloane (Aja Naomi King), which wasn’t in Bonnie Garmus’ bestselling novel.
“We found this wonderful location near LAX and thought ‘This is it. This is the space. It’s beautiful.’ I love combining beauty with pain. So we tried to keep it beautiful, but also give it the grit to keep it honest and authentic,” Shelton said. “We were able to shut down the ramp of the highway for, I believe it was half an hour, and the cars came down, we swung the crane over to the sit-in.”
Shelton said the protest was inspired by real-life events.
“It took a while to actually do the work in prep before we actually shot it. It was one of the faster days that we shot. It was a very traumatic day, but it was a very quick day because everybody was very focused. We did a lot of research and a lot of work prior to the filming of it,” Shelton said. “We knew that this protest existed, but there was no photographic evidence of it at all that I could find or that the historian could find, which was really weird, because there’s so many pictures from that time and we were like, ‘Why is there nothing of this.’”
“It became a mission to gather as much information about similar protests and gather information about that period of time and what was really going on in the Civil Rights Movement and what was happening, and then imagining how that would have been in this space.”
Shelton also revealed that it took a couple of tries to make the scene look as realistic as possible.
“I had to do several passes to try to get the stunt police officers to be harsher with the stunts actors in the background. At first they were very respectful, they were kindly taking them out and I was like ‘No, if we’re going to do this, we have to represent the truth of what it was really like.’ Otherwise, there’s no reason for us to do it,” she said. “I’m not into Black pain. I don’t like to perpetrate it a lot, but I think there is a moment, a time and a place to use it and to use it effectively. I thought it was very appropriate to use it in this sense, but I thought if we did it, then we need to be authentic and we need to humanize it, not water it down, and let it be the traumatic situation that it really was, but to find heart in the humanity of the characters so that when someone’s watching this, they will feel the pain and not ever want to recreate this.”
Showrunner Lee Eisenberg and director Sarah Adina Smith revealed that Harriet almost didn’t exist as the iteration that appears in the Apple adaptation of Garmus’ novel. In the book, she did not have the same backstory of advocacy for civil rights.
“It’s really beautiful how Harriet’s story starts to come into the forefront, and her story in parallel with Elizabeth and the stakes that she’s dealing with. Whereas Elizabeth might be bemoaning not getting further in her career, Harriet’s literally dealing with losing her home and fighting for her community and the stakes are really real.” Smith added. “It’s also humbling in a great way for our main character, so that she has somewhere to grow and she can become aware of her own privilege and the ways in which she has blind spots.”
Shelton credited Larson with doing the work to make a standoffish Zott empathetic to Harriet’s experience with racism.
“You can be friends and live across the street but have different [values] because of your ethnic background or your religious background, but you can still be friends,” Shelton said. “And it’s got to be a friendship that’s based on honesty and respect, and respect for something that you don’t understand. The fact that Elizabeth does understand what it’s like to be discriminated as a female, and has empathy for what it is like to be discriminated as a Black person in America and shows up and is there, and the pain that she feels at the very end is real for people that she loves.”
The first six episodes of Lessons in Chemistry are now available to stream on Apple TV+.