Your boss tells you to jump into a machine and travel back in time. Which era do you look forward to visiting? If you’re Black, the question is a tricky one. There are few periods in history that are welcoming, or safe, to go to.
This is the dilemma Malcolm Barrett’s character Rufus Carlin faces in the new NBC sci-fi drama Timeless, which premieres tonight on NBC.
When his boss tells him he has to pilot a time machine back to May 6, 1937 – the day of the Hindenburg disaster – he’s not exactly enthusiastic.
“I can’t,” he says in the trailer. “I am Black. There is literally no place in American history that’ll be awesome for me.”
But when you’re the lone scientist experienced enough to help a historian and a soldier navigate their way through time as they try to catch a bad guy before he disrupts major past events, you haven’t got much choice.
“I’ve coined this phrase – the hero in the hoodie,” Barrett says. “The description of my character is ‘scientist.’”
But when most people see a Black man in a hoodie, the last think they think about is his profession.
“When you see me I’m a Black man in a hoodie running and that is an interesting dichotomy and says a lot about the sociopolitical of where we’re going. Because I watched Fox News when Geraldo Rivera said you can’t redeem the hoodie when Trayvon Martin was killed,” he says. “So I love the fact that when you see my character in modern day, I’m a Black man in a hoodie.”
For the 36-year-old actor whose credits include Dear White People and Peeples, the significance of being a Black time traveler – and all that entails – is not lost on him.
Barrett, who stars alongside Abigail Spencer and Matt Lanter who play the historian and the soldier respectively, says, “It’s a complex thing, because there are pockets of safeness. I keep saying, it’s not like Black people didn’t’ start smiling until ’98 or some sh*t like that. There are pockets of safeness.”
So where does his character find those safe spaces? Sometimes in unexpected places.
“The second episode – the Lincoln assassination – I’m there [and] I masquerade as a Union solider in the north. So, after winning the war they felt very accomplished and very optimistic. So that was sort of a safe place,” Barrett says.
“America has a habit of taking steps forward and steps back. We’ve had Frederick Douglas. We’ve had greats who’ve existed within our time period. We’ve had Daniel Hale [Williams]. We’ve had doctors and scientists and tons of people who’ve had success. But at the same time there’s been an atmosphere of oppression. There’s been pushback. So there’s a fine line in [the] storytelling in terms of what we deal with in any aspect of the show.”
One hint of the sticky situations Rufus will face in Timeless is revealed in the trailer. While behind bars in a 1930s jail cell he responds to a White police officer who calls him “boy,” by saying passionately, “I hope you live long enough to see Michael Jordan dunk, Michael Jackson dance, Mike Tyson punch…really just any Black guy named Michael, because the future is not on your side.”
Despite the current social and political tensions amid the high profile fatal shootings of unarmed African-Americans, Barrett doesn’t think that optimistic speech rings hollow.
“I don’t think it’s disingenuous,” he says, “because I don’t think the story ends on, ‘Everything’s going to be great for black people.’ I think within the context of that show it was simply like, ‘Things are not going to be what you think it is. That’s also a gentle balance of acknowledging progress and also acknowledging adversity. You can call it whatever you want but we’re not going to be able to solve every problem within the course of 30 minutes or an hour.”
And it’s that kind of weighty expectation that Barrett is keen to avoid. He says: “I don’t have the capacity, the will, to deal with all of Black history and all of Black humanity every episode, every time. It would be foolish of myself to believe that I’m solving racial indifference every hour that I do this show.”
And yet, he understands that being a Black man in a show about time-travelers matters.
“My contribution is understanding what it is to be an African-American male, dealing with the day-to-day issues of my life on top of this historical context.”
He continues: “There’s an excellent opportunity to make statements about historical humanity and the African-American presence and how we’re treated along these timelines. But it’s also an opportunity to be a smart black man who deals with the same emotional things that everyone else does; that has a vulnerability, who is scared, who is trying to overcome his fears.”
Barrett adds: “So that’s just as a appealing to me as all these other historical aspects.”
That brings us back to the “hero in the hoodie.” Barrett loves that he is stripping down these negative connotations that surround being a Black man in a hoodie – a clothing item that is almost de rigueur for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, computer nerds and hackers.
“I love that I’m a young black man in a hoodie who’s a scientist and probably – is – the most intelligent person on the show and one of the key factors to this,” he says.
Barrett’s goal is to bring “intelligence and humanity” to the role. In some ways he sees himself in Rufus – the reluctant hero from the Westside of Chicago who is a scientist.
The actor from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, who went to a math and science high school, has been defying expectations throughout his career.
He got his big break in the 2003 sitcom Luis, starring actor Luis Guzmán. Back then whenever he was asked, “What made you make it out of there?” he felt insulted.
He says: “That tells me you expected everybody in Bed-Sty to fail… The fact that I did not fail is an anomaly to you and that is insulting.”
Barrett knows that if Timeless is a success, for millions of African-American children he will be a role model. But the actor who visits schools, volunteers and tutors believes his job “doesn’t end at being a great black character.”
“I definitely know that seeing a black scientist in a hoodie is going to affect people,” he says. But, he adds, “I also know the difference between that and volunteering and talking to kids on a level on who I am as a human.”
“All of these things contribute to the progress of culture, of people, of the minds of children.”
Timeless airs Mondays on NBC at 10pm/9pm Central.