One of the many unfortunate byproducts of the way Colin Kaepernick’s now year-old protest during the National Anthem has been co-opted is the erasure of black patriotism. Depending on the day, white moderates and supremacists alike insist athletes who kneel during the National Anthem are either disrespecting the flag, the troops, or the country en masse.
A popular quote that’s floated across the internet in the wake of all this suggests racism is so American, when black folks protest racism, the average American assumes they’re protesting America. Secret Service agent Mike Ritter, played by LaMonica Garrett on ABC’s Designated Survivor stands tall in defiance of that assumption, as an impenetrable example of a proud black patriot.
Originally assigned to Thomas Kirkman’s personal security detail to protect him and his family following a bombing of the nation’s capitol, Ritter is thrust into the position of Secret Service agent once it becomes apparent Kirkman is the last politician standing in the late President’s line of succession.
With racial strife and impending nuclear war and frightening death tolls currently baking our political climate, the poignant subtext of the real world is very much felt on set of the show.
“There’s an episode coming up—I think it’s episode three of this season—that has some Civil Rights undertones to it,” Garrett explains. “Just reading it, I got emotional. There’s a scene between me and Kiefer [Sutherland] in the Oval Office. Although it’s make believe, you’re in the Oval Office, and you’re talking to the President, and you’re a Black Secret Service agent who’s responsible for him and his family. With the times that are going on right now, that’s significant to me.”
That significance doesn’t exist in the vacuum of the series. Speaking to his experience visiting the actual Oval Office—President Obama’s Oval Office—the actor recalls a similarly pensive feeling.
“There was a bust of Abraham Lincoln, and a bust of Martin Luther King. I was told that was the first time Martin Luther King’s bust was in the Oval Office. Right above that bust was a program from the March on Washington. It was an original program. It was weathered and torn a little bit. President Obama had it encased. Seeing that and being in the Oval Office with a Black President at the time—that came up and got me.”
In an exclusive interview with Shadow And Act, Garrett spoke to all that Designated Survivor and Mike Ritter mean to political discourse and black patriotism in season two of the series.
S&A: This time last year, we were at the tail end of Obama’s presidency and gearing up for a particularly morose time in American politics. What has it been like filming a political show in today’s climate?
LG: Last season, it was real tricky because a lot of what the writers were writing, they wrote far ahead of time, and things would happen in reality that would hit a little too close to home. It seemed like the things that were going on in reality were worse than what was scripted.
It is kind of surreal being on a show like this with the temperature of the times that we live in right now, but that’s our job. We’re storytellers, and if it hits too close to home, that might be something that needs to be addressed.
S&A: How often does that happen—a plot point hitting too close to home? And how exactly do you go about addressing it?
LG: “Sometimes, we’ve already shot it and we’ve already edited it, so that’s just what it is. You just want to tell the story. Some people might get rubbed the wrong way by the story, and voice their own opinion saying it’s too liberal or it’s too conservative or whatever, but it’s the story—the things that we’re saying are the things that go on and actually happen. So if it’s making you uncomfortable, it’s something that should be talked about and brought into an open forum, because that’s the only way stuff gets solved.”
S&A: Are there any topics in particular you’re excited for audiences to see come up this season?
LG: “We have a lot of really good issues we touch on. And it goes within the flow of the show. It’s not like we’re stepping out of bounds to talk about something for the sake of talking about it. We have an episode that touches on civil rights, we have an episode that touches on the military, we have an episode that touches on injustice…but it goes within the flow of the series.
There’s still a conspiracy going on. We’re still trying to find out who blew up the capitol and how deep the chain goes. But with all of that being said, President Kirkman still has to govern the country, and these are the issues that come up.”
S&A: Within the developing beats of that story, what is the audience going to learn about your character this season?
LG: “We’re about a third of the way through filming. You get to know a little bit more about why Mike Ritter is the way he is. He speaks on his family, how he grew up, and who his father was. And children come into the picture—not physically, but he speaks of them.
His feelings about protecting the President…his feelings about honor and respect and dignity—he has a moral code that he sticks to. And also, last season, you didn’t really get to see him in action much. There was a lot going on, but he was stuck with the President and he was very protected.
Part of me, as the actor, was like ‘I wanna put my hands on somebody.’ I wanna get physical. That’s the fun stuff too. This season, you get to see Mike Ritter in action a little bit more than last year.”
S&A: Given how Secret Service agents are sort of nameless and faceless in real life, what’s it like to read your character’s story each week and see so much depth?
LM: “It’s exciting. The way Secret Service people are looked at, they’re seen and not heard. But they’re always there. Their presence is always felt. You just don’t really get to know who these people are. But everyone has a story. Everyone has a background. Everyone came from somewhere.
It’s fun reading the scripts, because the writers identify with that. When I get new scripts and I see this is the topic this week, and this is what my character is going through, and this is what he’s challenged with, I think it’s fun to play that instead of just playing that strong figure that’s neither seen nor heard.
Him talking about his family brings a humanity to it, and a humility to it as well. In film, you can get away with just a great plot. You come for two hours and you’re just there for that plot. But in television, people are drawn toward characters. For me, I take pride in being a strong black male on television and people identifying with me. I’ll walk up and down the street and I’ll bump into brothers, and they’re like ‘man, I love how you portray us.’
That’s special to me. That means something. There was a time back in the day when there weren’t a lot of brothers looked at like that on television.
S&A: How does it feel to be looked at that way on top of the prestige that’s afforded the Secret Service? Particularly during a time in which the patriotism of black folks is constantly challenged.
LG: “It doesn’t fit the narrative they want—the people that are opposed to democracy and what this kneeling is all about. It has nothing to do with the anthem or the flag. It has everything to do with the constitution. My character will live and die by that constitution. He’s fought for that constitution.”
Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays on ABC.