Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles - So, from Mexico, came back, ended up at Howard University. - Oh yeah, many years later, Howard University was amazing. That was amazing. - What is your favorite Howard memory or experience? - Well, you know, our anthem was, "say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud." - Hey now. - That was it, you know, I'm gonna write a movie about it. I really am because it was such an explosive time, coming into Howard University and just being seeped in your culture and your cultural identity and then to be in the middle of the chaos with the assassination of Martin Luther King. That was all in my freshman year. It was a lot of growing up, it was a lot of, you know, coming into age very quickly. - I'm trying to think of a gentle way to breach this next subject because... - Why? Why do you have to be gentle? - I don't know. - Okay. I think I'm just socialized to try and be that way. - Just became a therapy session. Now I'm just like, oh my God, why am I so gentle, oh no. - I'm gonna start questioning you. - Oh no, okay, all right. I'll ask the questions here, madam. Are you aware that there is a conversation on the internet about whether or not you pledged any sorority and if so, whether it was Delta or AKA? Is something that you're conscious of? - I'm not aware of the conversation but I'm aware of it every time I'm in the company of multiple Black women who go "oh wee" or "skee wee" and they talk to me. So I was at Howard University, my sister Phylicia Rashad, who's footsteps I was following everywhere, pledged AKA. So I was gonna pledge AKA and I went and I made line and they, oh my interview, I just remember it, I was just so sharp, they thought I was schooled or I don't know what but they were gunnin' for me, they were gonna really let me have it but my mother, Vivian Ayers, said to me, "if you pledge a sorority, "then I'm gonna take all the money that I have saved "to send you to dance school in the summer "and I'm gonna buy a car because your consciousness "is not in the right place." - Oh my. - "Your focus is off." And I'm like, "no mom, no, okay." So I dropped out of line and so I never did pledge and I went to the New London Dance Festival where I met Alvin Ailey, where I met the protégé of Katherine Dunham, I met Twyla Tharp, I met Martha Graham, I met the greatest icons in the dance world and mama was right. - Yeah, so worth it? - Yeah, see that's what she did. She used, those were her tricks. - How do you think the trajectory of your life and career would have been different had you not gone to an HBCU? - Wow, well you know, I tried to go to a school of the arts that rejected me, that was not predominantly Black. I think things happen in your life for a reason and you might not always understand it, you can't accept it but sometimes, it's the best thing for you. - Mm hmm. - I mean, I grew up in Houston, Texas in an all Black environment because everything was segregated. Our elementary, junior and senior high schools, movie theaters, everything, everything was segregated until, I want to say '65, somewhere around there things start to really change. When they started to make us play the songs the other band was playin', we're like, "oh, hell no. "Don't play that horrible march. "We want some..." - We want some.. - "Some soul, chile," anyway. - Put some sauce on it as the kids say. - So I think Howard, was the right place for me. It defined me in a way that I had no idea it could, to be not only at Howard but to be in Washington D.C., the center of this, the capital of this country, which is a predominantly Black city and to just be in a place where you were never the minority, you were always the majority and your opinion mattered. - Wow. - And it counted for something and so we came out of Howard knowing we were gettin' ready to roll and rule the world and so my mother had already convinced us of that but Howard, you know, validated it. It just did, you know, those professors, those teachers. - Yeah. - You know, when I did the movie, Amistad, Howard University is how I came to that story, going to the bookstore. I picked up a book called "Amistad," a collection of essays by Black academicians and philosophers and in the front of it was a preface that talked about what Amistad was, this slave ship upon which there was a mutiny and I just, I was like whoa, Howard University has been a, it fueled me when I did A Different World, when I did that movie, all of my teachers were my best advisors, Howard University is a big part of my DNA. - I cannot leave your home until I talk to you about A Different World because it's the reason why I feel like we grew up together. - Mmm. - You know? Even though I did not see you physically on the screen in every episode. Once I'd learned and found out that you were the one behind the camera I was like, oh of course. Of course this is Debbie Allen, of course. (laughs) I am very very taken with your entry to the show, which you joined second season, correct? - My coming in to this show was certainly somewhere between my sister who was, you know Denise's mother, and had visited the campus of Hillman on the show. And seeing what was happening behind the scenes. We need you to get out your broom It was not a happy place at A Different World behind the scenes. They didn't quite have the right producing director there. Phylicia went back and talked to Bill and the next thing I know I was getting a phone call from him saying, We need you to get out your broom and dust it off over there. Go and clean house. I said all right. So then I met with Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach, and I said okay, give me every episode. They said, you wanna watch every episode? I said absolutely, so I know how I'm gonna fix this and what we're going to do. And so then it was about breaking down in the writer's room, to let them open up to new ideas. And Denise, yes she was pregnant and we were gonna do such great stories about a girl who was a Black girl from a upper-middle class family, pregnant, and not married for a change. You know how it's usually portrayed. And then finally Bill. I took her to meet Bill to tell him, and he saw us coming. It was the funniest meeting, oh my God. Anyway, he said, "no Debbie, Lisa Bonet is pregnant, not Denise Huxtable. No, you can't have it." "I'm like, okay." 'Cause it was gonna be great. - Yeah. - We wanted to use that but it was a little early for him to let go. But we made the show so relevant. Jasmine Guy I had brought to Los Angeles, she was one of my Fame dancers. - That is so great. - And then, Kadeem Hardison, I had known him as a kid. His mother Beth Hardison was one of the baddest models in New York, and we were friends. And I remember him coming over as a little kid jumping on my water bed. And he said, I'm your Kadeem. I'm like huh? (laughs) I'm like oh my God it's you! So we took that show apart and put it back together. Susan Fales was amazing as the lead writer on that show. We developed that show and made it so relevant and made everybody wanna go to college. We tripled the enrollment. - Really? - Of historically Black colleges, yes. We made all kids, Black and white, everybody want to go to college, because they felt that there was something there that they connected to, that they loved, that they wanted to have that experience. Having come from Howard University, I knew what to do with the show. I had lived it and breathed it. So I knew the stories that they needed to be telling. - What were those stories? - Well they didn't need to be walking around talking about a egg. They needed to be doing stories about voter registration or date rape, their cultural identity. You know, who is Whitley Gilbert? Who is the boy in this cast that she needs to be with? And I was hands down, it's Dwayne. - Yeah, yes. - And they were like, no no. I said "It's Dwayne." I said "Don't tell me about some pretty boy, that's not, no." She's gonna go with whoever's more intelligent than she is. Can make her laugh and give her shit. - And earned her. - Yasss honey. - Absolutely. - Yeah, claimed his woman. - I wonder if you had a lot of push back with the changes that you were trying to make. Like what do you think the impact of having Denise on the show, pregnant, upper-middle class but still at school, like what impact do you think that would've had on viewers? - It would've been a huge impact because already, The Cosby Show was changing the way people were looking at Black people. For what reason, it took a television show for them to realize that we're middle class just like everybody else, upper-middle class. This was something that people just weren't ready for it. I don't know why. - Yeah. - We wanted it but we did many other things they weren't ready for. I was always being called in to what I call the principal's office. (laughs) For doing shows that were, you know really about something. We did an episode once called "Mammy Dearest" where we reclaimed the image of Aunt Jemima. We took her out of that gingham fabric and we took the gingham, that gingham Mammy dress and wrapped it like an African Queen. And this was one of the most difficult episodes we had to do, because we had people that were wearing Blackface and it was very controversial. But we were just dealing with it straight up. And then the cutest little white boy that you ever wanted to see in your life is who wrote it. - I was gonna ask.