Apple TV+ series ‘Swagger’ tackles prison pipeline, with John Carlos as guest star

TheGrio spoke with "Swagger" creator-writer Reggie Rock Bythewood and Dr. John Carlos about season two episode "Are We Free," screened at the 2023 Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival.

“Swagger,” a scripted series on Apple TV+ is more than just a high school basketball drama. Right from the first season, the show has tackled themes like violence, abuse, responsibility, discipline, economic prejudice, and the inner workings of basketball politics for Black teenage players.

In season two, the series kicks things up a notch, featuring an emotionally charged episode, “Are We Free,” dealing with prison, mental health, and social activism. The episode, screened at the 2023 Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, featured a special cameo by former Olympian and activist Dr. John Carlos.

If you don’t know Dr. Carlos’ name, you know his image. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Carlos and fellow United States sprinter Tommie Smith won the bronze and gold medals, respectively, in the 100-meter dash. They raised their leather glove bond Black fists skyward during the medal presentation.

21st Annual Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival
John Carlos speaks onstage at the screening of Apple TV’s “Swagger” during the 21st Annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on Aug. 10, 2023, in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Hunt/Getty Images for MVAAFF)

The image of Carlos and Smith is an unforgettable symbol of Black power and Black protests in American history while showing the good side of using sports as a platform for change, as well as its repercussions.

During the episode, Coach Ike (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) takes members of his Team Swagger to a detention center to play an exhibition game against incarcerated teens. This takes place while team star Jace Carson (Isaiah R. Hill) and some of his teammates face their own legal troubles. This dynamic shows the unique parallel between the nation’s prison pipeline for young Black males and the professional pipeline of young Black males looking to make the NBA.

“There’s a problem in the country which is this detention center to prison pipeline that becomes a never-ending cycle,” Bythewood told theGrio. “Sports is another way to hold the mirror up to society. One of the running themes of this season of ‘Swagger’ and in particular, this episode is this question of what does it mean to be a champion on the court and off the court?”

Right from the beginning of season two, Jace and his teammates are acutely aware that their actions going into their senior year of high school could knock them off the trajectory of their two-year plan to reach the NBA draft. After getting in trouble for attacking a man who attacked Jace’s old girlfriend the previous season, their dreams are now in jeopardy. The team’s all-access visit to the detention center gives them a glimpse of where they could end up.

“In our show, we deal a lot with young people, and we always have a central question, which is ‘how do we treat young people in this country,'” Bythewood told theGrio. “To the young people, if you’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t mean that it defines you.”

Conversely, “Are We Free” also illustrates the reform efforts the detention center offers the young boys. As many of them prepare to re-enter society, they are given basketball, academic classes, and debate clubs, as outlets of expression for them. During their visit, Dr. Carlos shows up, portraying himself, to reveal some startling statistics.

21st Annual Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival
Reggie Rock Bythewood speaks onstage at the screening of Apple TV’s “Swagger” during the 21st Annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on Aug. 10, 2023, in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Hunt/Getty Images for MVAAFF)

“What is the largest mental health provider in the United States,” Carlos asked Team Swagger. It turns out to be prisons, jails, and detention centers. He let the kids, and the audience for that matter, know that America incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, and currently “there are more Black people in the penitentiaries across this nation than there were Black people enslaved before the civil war.”

Carlos echoed Bythewood’s notion that a bad or regrettable incident should not tell a person’s entire story. “The greatest invention ever wasn’t the airplane or the typewriter; it was the eraser,” Carlos told theGrio. “Every man, woman, and child who comes from this Earth is going to make a mistake, and we can’t be defined by that mistake. All we can do is correct the mistake and move forward.”

As an icon of sports activism, Carlos believes this episode of “Swagger” was an excellent opportunity to show how athletes can make a difference with their platform.

“You can go back to Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, or Jack Johnson,” Carlos continued. “All individuals involved in athletics had to be the spokesperson for those with no voice. We realized that as athletes, we’re noticeable, and people stop to listen to what we had to say as much as the president of the United States. So we have to embrace it to its full extent.”

Season two of “Swagger” is available to stream on Apple TV+.

Apple TV provided complimentary travel accommodations and flights for theGrio staff to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.”

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!