Imagine a society in the future with citizens living in a virtual bubble cut off from their past. They coexist in disparate factions governed by a restrictive and paranoid regime. The peace is kept by giving its young people a means of expression that also serves as entertainment for the masses. Then one day those young people stumble across an archive of world history that includes one of the most dynamic cultural phenomena they’ve ever seen—hip-hop. This is the premise of show creator RT Thorne’s ambitious series, Utopia Falls.
The Canadian TV director and producer cut his teeth directing music videos for some of hip-hop’s elite, and has spent the better part of the last decade overseeing episodic TV shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation, Backstage and Find Me In Paris. But Utopia Falls is the passion project of a Black man who grew up interested in science fiction and hip-hop who wanted to see those world’s blended and projected on screen.
The 10-episode series features a multicultural cast of young people who live in a city called New Babyl and are chosen to compete in a contest called the Exemplar. New Babyl is inspired by their deity, a Black woman named Gaia, but is overseen by a tyrannical government called The Authority. The dystopian look and feel draws plenty of comparisons to movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent, but with some important distinctions. Grammy Award winning producer Boi-1da serves as Executive Music Director, and with episode titles like “The World Is Yours,” “Run This Town,” and “Lost Ones,” the hip-hop DNA of this show is pretty evident.
BET spoke with RT Thorne about his motivations for making the series, how he got an unlikely idea greenlit and his hopes for the future.
I’m a hip-hop kid obviously. I grew up in the culture. I’m a comic book kid and kind of a science fiction nerd from back in the day. So, Star Trek Deep Space Nine with Sisko (Avery Brooks), and Next Generation was my thing, seeing Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) in Star Wars, that was always in my blood.
I come from a music video background. I’ve worked with a lot of hip-hop artists out of Toronto and down in the states, so all of those things kind of swirled around when I got a chance to come up with this. But the number one thing is that I hadn’t seen my culture in the future. I see a couple of people in these science fiction future worlds, but I don’t see my people or people who look like me as the heroes, as the leaders in these journeys.
Also, I don’t really see the culture. Science fiction is good at setting up these political situations that these characters have to deal with. The world is politicized, but you rarely get to see what’s moving the people. What are they moving to? What are they listening to? What are they eating? Music in the future is always some electronica music. Let’s project our culture in the future and let me see what it would look like if hip-hop was rediscovered.
THE FALL OF A UTOPIA
The premise is that the world has been decimated and this is the last group of people, and if you’re trying to rebuild humanity with this last group of people, what do you want to set up? I believe that the people who started putting this together, their process has to be whatever happened to the world before, they have to try and avoid that. You want to avoid environmental disasters, clashes between religions and cultures. So, the idea is that these people tried to make a utopian society. It SEEMS like everyone gets along, but in order to do that they’ve had to restrict and erase elements of history from people. Which is why the discovery of a rebellious, truth telling culture like hip-hop is dangerous to these people. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you kind of accept what you’re told. Until you start to learn about the past and to learn that you CAN challenge [authority]…and hip-hop in its DNA is about telling you a story about what you see around you.
A BLACK WOMAN AS GOD
Gaia was the first character that I thought of in this world. You always see these prophets and Jesus figures and they’re always men. And often white men. So, I wanted a Black woman to be the founder. I wanted it to be a Black woman who lead them out the darkness. We don’t get too deep into the story of Gaia in this particular season, but if we’re blessed to get a second season we’ll get more into it. But The Tribunal and The Authority are kind of the police force and like we know, all of the power structures are headed up by white people. There was some intention to that absolutely. [But] there are white allies built into the story.
THE DANCE COMPETITION THAT ISN'T
I really went deep into the world building and the idea for me…the desire was something where hip-hop has relevance. So, one of the most important things was creating a society where performance is a power. If you’re looking to build a society that will not fall into the trappings of what came before, you’re gonna restrict culture and history. And quite frankly you don’t want stuff that’s gonna feel rebellious so you’re gonna strip out the idea of violence. You’re gonna create forms of expression that aren’t about being against somebody. So, we created a competition that you use to reinforce your propaganda. You have this song and dance competition with the young people of the society. The ones with the most energy and the desire to express [themselves] and they’ve given them the task of entertaining the populous.
And with that they’ve given them the songs and the music and the way in which to do it. So, the young people feel like they’re expressing themselves but they’re really carrying the message that the government wants them to carry.
Capoeira is embraced by one of the characters later on in the series because she goes through a traumatic event and experiences violence for the first time and she tries to empower herself through it, learning from the past.
WHY IT’s NOT THE HUNGER GAMES
Some of the mainstream critics have said that. To them I say I think y’all are missing the point. We were never trying to create something that was so distinct and so different. We wanted it to feel familiar. The difference is that we’re dealing with the lives of Black and Brown youth. The lives of the other youth and how they live in this society and the journeys they go on. It’s not about an America’s Got Talent competition. It’s about these young people reclaiming the knowledge of the past, cultural knowlege, and using that to find their own voice.
We dress it up like it’s a song and dance competition in a sense but ironically that’s what the society wants. The irony is that the series is supposed to be deeper. It’s not for everybody and it’s all good. But it is for Black and Brown youth to see themselves in this kind of story. It’s for older heads like me that might have kids and it’s a co-viewing thing. They can watch it and talk about what the characters are learning about and have a discussion. That’s what was really important to me.
MAKING HIS DREAM A REALITY
At the begging of this process, something I learned was 'take the meeting.' I’d built up certain cultural collateral in the hip hop world. And a company came to me, Sonar Entertainment and said they wanted to do something youth related.
In my lifetime I’ve seen hip-hop go from being something people really don’t talk about to being the most powerful force of Pop Culture in the world. But I’ve never seen that in the future. So, I give Sonar entertainment credit for listening to me. I don’t think they knew I was going to come back with this whole science fiction [idea].
Once I had the production company to back my idea we went and pitched to a lot of places, and it was only the streamers that seemed interested. They were more willing to take a shot on innovative show ideas for specific audiences ‘cause I think their business is dealing in niche markets. Then I worked with them for the better part of a year and half to develop it. I built out the content Bible and then went around to pitch.
Hulu had just come off of Handmaid's Tale winning a Best Drama Emmy and were looking for things that would challenge audiences or have deeper commentary, and I think that’s what clicked about Utopia Falls for them. I don’t think a Sci-fi show with leads of color about the rediscovery of Hip Hop in the future would have gotten a green light even five years ago.
The first season of Utopia Falls is streaming now on Hulu.