Sam-thing to talk about

Sam-thing to talk about

By Michael Pickard
May 5, 2023

In production

Sam – A Saxon, the first German original for Disney+, dramatises the true story of East Germany’s first black police officer. Producers Jörg Winger and Tyron Ricketts tell DQ about the project’s long journey to the screen and its topical themes of identity and belonging.

The first German original series to arrive on Disney+, Sam – A Saxon is based on the true story of Samuel Meffire, who would become the first black police officer in East Germany.

But this seven-part series isn’t a police procedural. Instead, it charts Sam’s journey to find his place in an intensely prejudiced society, becoming the face of an anti-racism campaign and a symbol of a new Germany once the Berlin Wall comes down. It also depicts the challenges he faces in his personal life, as his meteoric rise leads to an abrupt downfall and leaves him behind bars.

“He’s trying to find a home, but he’s a black German and the Germany he lives in doesn’t see him as a German,” series co-creator Tyron Ricketts tells DQ. “So from episode to episode, he’s trying to belong, to become a part of the world he loves, and he just encounters so many obstacles – structural obstacles but also individual obstacles.

“But through his relationships with the people he meets along the way, he tries different ways and also extreme ways to become part of it all, which is hard if the structure of society doesn’t want you to be there. That’s why even though it’s a historical story that happened 30 years ago, these are still issues that people of colour and other marginalised groups are going through today.”

It was Ricketts (Dogs of Berlin) who first pitched his idea for a series about the real Samuel Meffire to co-creator and series showrunner Jörg Winger (Deutschland 83/86/89). Ricketts had learned about Meffire’s story while the former was a member of a rap group embarking on a school tour in East Germany to support children growing up surrounded by extremist culture.

“But before we went on the tour, we received death threats from Nazis and we needed security,” Ricketts recalls. “The real Samuel Meffire and his crew back then turned out to be our security team, back in 2001, and he told me his story. I felt like this needed to be on the screen.”

Then in 2006, Winger hired Ricketts as an actor on a crime series called Soko Leipzig, and together they plotted Meffire’s story as a feature film. “But then the market wasn’t ready. The German market said it was a great story but no one wants to see a black lead,” Ricketts says. “That was quite frustrating, but when we picked it up again in 2018, Jörg came on board with Christopher Silber, a great writer with East German roots, and the three of us packaged it together and managed to finally sell it.”

Jörg Winger

Winger admits he is “almost relieved” the story wasn’t picked up in 2006, owing to the fact it would have been a local German production – with a smaller budget to go with it – rather than an international series that is now available to more than 160 million Disney+ subscribers worldwide following its launch on April 26.

“After Tyron being the first black TV cop in East Germany, to now telling the story of the first black cop in East Germany and this incredible journey, it feels like things are coming full circle,” he says. “This story is so locally specific and is set at a time that has not really been seen on German television. We felt this world – a black German sees the world so different from everybody else – was incredibly important for us and for the black community to finally get that voice and have themselves be seen in such a large story.

“For white viewers who might be a step apart from the black experience, storytelling is this great endeavour where you can step into someone else’s shoes, take a different perspective and develop empathy for someone and some understanding. I hope at the end we’ll improve the world a little bit.”

Sam, Winger notes, is a tragic hero – one who makes “incredible” mistakes despite his best intentions as he travels through a world full of prejudice and obstacles.

“Sometimes it’s described as an antihero story but I don’t think so,” he adds. “He’s no Walter White or Tony Soprano. He wants to improve the world and, because the world is so complex, he gets into big trouble.”

“It’s almost like a hero’s journey, but the structures set up around the hero aren’t made for him,” Ricketts notes. “So he doesn’t really come back with the elixir to save his people.

“In every episode, he’s jumping into a new world, which I think is also something special about the show. It doesn’t stay in the same setting. That’s why it’s such a hero’s journey, from world to world to world.”

Sam – A Saxon is based on the true story of Samuel Meffire, East Germany’s first black police officer

Ricketts believes Sam’s story won’t just appeal to German audiences, however, as the themes and topics broached in the series will resonate around the world in the wake of modern movements such as Black Lives Matter.

“From the black community, the feedback is we’re getting is overwhelming, because they haven’t seen themselves represented on German TV,” he says. “Now they’re being represented, but their story is not being told by someone else about them, which makes them the object. Not only do we tell Sam’s story through the eyes of a black German, but through the team behind it, including me as an executive producer and writer. There are two female directors, Soleen Yusef, who has Kurdish German roots, and Sarah Blaßkiewitz, who is Afro-German with East German roots.”

The production team from Big Window Productions and Panthertainment also sought to have a diverse writers room – half male, half female; half black, half white; and half East German, half West German.

“Maybe we’re able to create a bridge and help fuel that conversation we’re having in society in terms of equal rights and steer it in a positive way,” Ricketts adds. “That’s the best thing. You can entertain but also do edutainment. That would make me extremely happy.”

Winger says he could not have told Sam’s story without Ricketts, the writers room and the real Samuel Meffire, who has been involved throughout the project, readying scripts and visiting the set. Meffire also spoke at length with Malick Bauer, who plays Sam in the series.

The show comes from Big Window Productions and Panthertainment

“Malick is the real discovery,” Winger says. “He brought some emotional and psychological truth to the screen. He spent weeks with Samuel, looking at his posture, how he trains, how he thinks. By sheer coincidence, Tyron found Malick at an Afro-German community event. He is quite an unknown actor, a well-trained actor, a theatre actor, who hasn’t been on screen. We did not intend to find someone who looks like Samuel but, by sheer coincidence, he does look like him.”

Having made a rap TV show in the 1990s, Ricketts wasn’t venturing into TV production for the first time with Sam – A Saxon, but he says making the Disney+ show was “a different ballgame.” “I had no idea how much work this would be,” he adds, describing it as an intense learning experience.

“It was a lot of fun because, working with Jörg and Chris, it was a really nice teamwork and we could all learn from each other. In the past, it was often quite frustrating because the roles I’ve been offered have been full of clichés. Sometimes they were racist. So to also have control over the story and have control over which direction the message should go, this was very rewarding and very fulfilling. I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.”

In the writers room, head writers Winger and Sibler co-wrote the scripts with Malina Nnendi Nwabuonwor, Toks Körner, Soleen Yusef, Carolin Würfel and Ricketts, taking on the task of compressing Meffire’s story into seven episodes. Each script would be overseen by two writers, before Silber and Winger incorporated studio notes. Winger also did a final pass before shooting began with lead directors Yusef (House Without Roof) and Blaßkiewitz (Precious Ivie).

“We could have done 20 hours of his life but that’s not really saleable,” Winger jokes. “We had actually planned it out for six episodes, but Disney wanted the first episode to be expanded into two because they felt like we needed to set it up to get people into the show, so we added an episode quite late in the game. Then it is very much Sam’s story.”

Ricketts hopes viewers will be both entertained and informed by the series

The showrunner says that rather than seeking absolute historical accuracy, the writers were more concerned with portraying the psychological truth of what Sam was feeling and experiencing in every situation.

“We were juggling two people in our hands, the fictional Sam and the real Samuel. And working on a fictional show, you think about what’s more exciting for the audience and what’s more emotional,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Ricketts’ role wasn’t limited to his work behind the scenes – he also has a part in the series as Alex, who opens Sam’s eyes to the Afro-German world hidden from view in East Germany. With Bauer in the lead, the cast also includes Svenja Jung, Luise von Finckh, Ivy Quainoo, Thorsten Merten, Martin Brambach and Carina Wiese.

“Through Sam’s eyes, we allow the audience to experience his experience, to define himself as a black German and for it to be normal,” he says. “Until not too long ago, Germany didn’t see itself as a multicultural society. People with migration backgrounds weren’t called Germans, they were called foreigners, even though they had a German passport. Through the eyes of Sam, we’re seeing his experience becoming a German and seeing himself as a German.”

Now when viewers tune into the series, Ricketts hopes they are entertained but also take the chance to immerse themselves in Sam’s story.

“At the end of the day, how can we all get along? Because that’s what people want,” he says. “We want to be seen as who we are and get along with the differences we have. If this show can help to make people go a step further in that direction, that’s what makes me happy.”

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