When Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson first heard about the remarkable journey of former-inmate-turned-lawyer Isaac Wright Jr., he thought it was too good to be true. “[He] began telling me his story, and it was crazy because I never knew anyone who actually went through anything similar to it,” says the hip-hop icon, who in recent years has flexed his clout as a rising television mogul and outspoken force behind TV producer Courtney Kemp’s hit Starz cable crime drama and ultimate guilty pleasure Power.
50 first met Wright back in 2017 at an underground boxing league in the Bronx. What he soon discovered was a man at the center of an extraordinary redemption tale too unimaginable for any respectable Hollywood executive to take seriously if it were a work of fiction. In 1991, Wright was wrongfully convicted of overseeing a massive drug network and sentenced to life in a maximum-security prison. Frustrated with his legal counsel, he studied law behind bars and began representing himself in court.
Not only did Wright work as his own proxy-lawyer, he overturned the convictions of over 20 of his fellow prisoners. He eventually got his own case vacated after widespread misconduct was discovered during his shocking cross-examination of detective James Dugan. Head prosecutor Nicholas L. Bissell Jr., who reportedly directed officers to provide false testimony that Wright was a drug kingpin, committed suicide. Wright’s legal arguments ended up creating new law that lawyers use today.
The New Jersey native’s story serves as inspiration behind ABC’s new series For Life, which hits the small screen on February 11. Executive produced by 50 Cent and his G-Unit Film & Television, Inc. banner, Hank Steinberg, Isaac Wright Jr., Doug Robinson and Alison Greenspan, the network drama is elevated by the kind of “event” buzz that most showrunners would sell their souls for. “He got 70 years...plus life,” marvels 50 of the unlikely path of Wright, who went on to earn a law degree in 2007, pass the New Jersey bar exam, and today practices law. “That’s 40 years more than El Chapo, and El Chapo was making the drugs! And yet somehow he fought his way out when everyone was telling him it was impossible. I thought, ‘Wow, this is definitely worthy of television.’” For Life features British actor Nicholas Pinnock as Aaron Wallace, who falls victim to an unjust court system. Like Wright, he builds up his own legal defense and litigates cases for other inmates in hopes of finding his own freedom. Of course Wallace still has to survive the day-to-day violence and life-threatening politics of prison.
And as if that weren’t enough, he’s still in love with his estranged ex-wife Marie, played by the criminally undervalued Joy Bryant. He also is desperate to reconnect with his pregnant 17-year-old daughter Jasmine, played by rising talent Tyla Harris.
“Aaron is trying to discover who he is and what kind of man he is going to be because he has this conflict when he recruits his clients in prison,” says Steinberg, creator of For Life. But the visionary behind CBS’ long-running, award-winning Without A Trace is quick to point out that For Life is not your standard legal drama in the mode of say Law & Order.
“It’s a question of how he uses [the inmates he represents],” explains Steinberg. “Does he use them to benefit himself? Or does he do all that he can to fight for their case? For Life is as much a family story as it is a prison intrigue story and a courtroom drama. That’s something you won’t find in a traditional procedural television show.”
Pinnock jumped at the chance to play the role of Aaron, especially after learning more about Wright’s mind-blowing odyssey. “When I read the script and researched who he was it just seemed like an important project that I had to be a part of,” says the 46-year-old best known to American audiences as Leon on the UK crime drama Top Boy, which has been reborn as a Netflix cult favorite.
But it wasn’t until his first meeting with Wright that he began to understand the sheer magnitude of his seemingly insurmountable ordeal. “We had a table reading sometime back in March, and Isaac came along to it,” Pinnock recalls. “And I literally grabbed him for 45 minutes to just understand who he was. I’m not actually playing him, but I’m playing a version of him. So I thought it was important for me to have an essence of who he was and not just be completely and emotionally devoid of who and what Isaac was about.”
For Wright, it was surreal witnessing some of his darkest moments play out on screen. “Watching Nicholas perform was a multifaceted experience for me,” he said during a January 8th For Life panel at the Television Critics Association Tour. “When I went through what I was going through in prison, one of the things that was very distracting was the issue that it’s a very dangerous environment. Moving through that process, I had to develop such an intense focus that I had to change my character and be someone else.”
50 believes such layered performances give credibility to For Life’s nuanced storytelling. “Nicholas found a way to have these subtleties in his performance to make it really believable,” he praises of the actor’s first foray as a television leading man. And 50 is equally lauding when the discussion turns to Joy Bryant. “We worked together in Get Rich or Die Trying so I know her talent level, and since then I’ve seen her do some amazing things,” he gushes of the veteran actress who had just come off a six-season stint as a regular on NBC’s comedy-drama series Parenthood. “[We] got lucky that she was available during that time period.”
“50 is my movie baby daddy,” Bryant jokes about her former big-screen love interest. “I’ve been at it for a minute and it’s always wonderful to hear someone dig what you do…to think that you are right for a role because so many times you are told you are not right. As someone who has had loved ones incarcerated, I really connected with Marie.”
According to producers, casting the role of the complex Marie was most challenging. It was a reality that Bryant soon discovered as she was tasked with pulling off a character that audiences could sympathize with even after leaving a locked-up Aaron and shacking up with his best friend.
“[She] found herself in extraordinary circumstances and is just trying to do the best she can to keep her family together and keep her sanity intact as well,” Bryant explains. “Working with these talented actors and writers and directors, especially for material like this that has some weight to it, makes it all very enjoyable and a lot easier. Nicholas and I bonded right away.”
Echoes Pinnock of his For Life castmate: “After a night of Jamaican food in New York [last March], we realized very quickly that we were kindred in so many different ways and journeys and parts of our lives. There is an unspoken kind of trust between Joy and myself.”
For Life joins the ranks of other so-called “woke” television series such as The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), The Chi (Showtime), Dear White People (Netflix), Euphoria (HBO), and the upcoming Coyote (Paramount Network) that aim to entertain as well as address serious issues of our time.
“Ten years ago you would have never thought of bringing a show like this to network television,” says Steinberg, who saw For Life as an opportunity to address criminal justice reform. “I think that people are finally starting to pay attention to the inequities in our legal and penal systems in terms of how people of color and people of the lower economic class are dealt with compared to people of money, power, and privilege.”
Indeed, For Life emerges at a moment when prison reform is at the zeitgeist of social activism. From prison strike organizer Amani Sawari to outspoken celebrities like Jay-Z, Meek Mill and even Kim Kardashian West, the battle to change the racially bias system of mass incarceration--where one in three black men and one in six Latino men will serve time in prison during their lifetime, 82 percent of women are locked up with a substance abuse problem, and 75 percent overall are in jail for nonviolent offenses--has been front and center.
And while Steinberg maintains that he’s still in the business of drawing in as many viewers as possible he sees the bigger picture. “When it comes to creating a TV show the first thing you want to do is make sure it’s compelling,” he says. “But if you tell the story of one man who you get to know, love, admire and root for that’s when you go, ‘Oh my goodness. Are there thousands of people like this man in prison?!!!’”
Still, For Life is a bit of an oddity given 50 Cent’s involvement. When the outspoken television honcho and social media boogeyman signed an eye-popping $150 million multi-series development deal with Starz in 2018, the general thinking was the habitual line-stepper would stay in the more profane confines of premium cable. In fact, he was just as shocked as anyone to be in a meeting with ABC executives pitching a prison drama to the Disney-owned network.
“Starz was absolutely the right place for me to start my TV career because it’s the R-rated version of the story,” he admits. “But I feel like cable has become more and more graphic as I’ve gone on. Network TV is more of a challenge.”
Which is why Pinnock calls Curtis Jackson For Life’s not-so-secret weapon. “He increased Starz’s stock because he managed to get people to subscribe only to watch Power,” he cites. “That’s not something a lot of people can do. I’ve met lots and lots of famous people, but 50 has a persona that is even larger than him. When you talk to him you have no choice but to take him seriously because he takes it seriously.”
In the television world, however, nothing is a sure bet. This year, For Life, will be competing against more than 50 new shows of original content, reboots, spinoffs, and miniseries spread across network, cable and streaming platforms. We are in a claustrophobic TV landscape filled with binge-worthy escapism, critically lauded showpieces and formulaic procedural shows like NCIS and FBI that routinely dominate the Nielsen top 10. How For Life jumps out of the gate will be integral to its future success.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have respected filmmaker George Tillman Jr. directing your pilot. “When I saw The Hate U GiveI just thought that’s my guy,” Steinberg says of the grizzled auteur behind Soul Food (1997), Men of Honor(2000), the Barbershop franchise (2002-2016) and the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious (2019). “We sent George the script and prayed that he would respond to it. Luckily he read it and 24 hours later he said, ‘I love it. I want to do it.’ He knows how to really capture emotion out of every scene and every actor.”
However, having a roster of Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominees and winners that includes the aforementioned Bryant, Steinberg as well as television vet Timothy Busfield and Game of Throne alum Indira Varma won’t matter much if the story doesn’t resonate with viewers. The heart of For Life remains Isaac Wright Jr.’s improbable climb out of hell by a fractured legal system too resigned to bury him.
“I spent so much time fighting that I did not really consider what I was going through,” said Wright, who has since utilized his unique legal expertise for the Newark, New Jersey law firm of Hunt, Hamlin, and Ridley. If anything else, Pinnock hopes that audiences will take For Life’s message of determination to heart.
“Isaac himself will tell you he thinks that this legal system is the best in the world,” he says. “But it’s the people that are running it that have made it corrupt. I would like For Life to challenge people’s sense of morality…to really let them think in a way that they have never done before. Because that’s what great art does.”