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How Diarra From Detroit Star Diarra Kilpatrick Created Black Female PI

How Diarra From Detroit Star Diarra Kilpatrick Created Black Female PI

Diarra Kilpatrick is the consummate multihyphenate: creator, co-writer and star of the BET+ noir dramedy Diarra From Detroit, which mines real elements of her life to tell a classic mystery tale that also deals with grief. “I wanted to tell a story about a Black private investigator for a long time. I was talking to my friend’s mom at a party, and she was saying that she had worked as a P.I. in Chicago, and I thought that was so weird, because this woman was such a mom, in the best way, who could get answers, even more so than a guy in a fedora.”

This wasn’t Kilpatrick’s first time playing with the mystery genre: She rose to showbiz prominence after creating the 2017 ABC web series American Koko, a satire dipping into the detective landscape that won her the Emmy for performance by an actress in a shortform series. But Kilpatrick’s love of theatrics began far earlier than that, back in Detroit, where “I was the multihyphenate at 5, because I was operating the Fisher-Price thing to make music in my room, I was starring in the one-woman show,” she says jokingly. She formed a theater company with her friends, and, desperate for an audience, they agreed to take a gig performing at, among other venues, a youth jail. “My father worked for Wayne County, so we had an in. There are all these kids, incarcerated,” she recalls. “We’re trying to inspire them through song, and they’re just looking at us like, ‘Really?’ I always found a way to perform.”

She studied at NYU Tisch, but after graduating and acting in the theater and in small roles on TV, she “felt bigger than that, like I could do more.” So she wrote American Koko. “I remember going: ‘You have to write something, and it doesn’t have to be good’ — because I’m such a perfectionist and I will stop myself by trying to make something good,” she says. “I remember that the way I got through that was by watching things I thought were [bad]. I watched episode after episode of this show that I thought wasn’t good, and then I was like, ‘Well, you could at least do that. If it’s in your heart to make something, just do it.’ ”

American Koko led to a role on Perry Mason, expanding her presence in the mystery genre, and then to Diarra From Detroit. The show follows a schoolteacher who’s grieving the end of her marriage and is determined to find out if her Tinder date ghosted her, and why, which leads her into a larger mystery within the Detroit underworld. “She’s navigating a heartbreak. She’s navigating grief. And that was something that I was going through, grieving the death of my mother,” Kilpatrick says. “Even though I didn’t write about it exactly, I was able to put those feelings of being very blue, a feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to continue this journey with this person in the same way that I thought I would,’ into the story, and that emotional life was really our guiding light.”

The biggest hurdle in getting her series to the finish line, she says, was her gender. “As a woman taking up space, there are people who are not used to that, that really want you to apologize for shining, for being bold.” Still, her belief in the project propelled her to take it over the finish line: “I am one of those idealists who feels like art can change the world, and art can change how you view a culture, or a community, or a type of people. I know a lot of people [think] I’m just an actor. I’m not saving the world, and I’m not curing cancer. And the truth of the matter is, no one’s cured cancer. So while people are dealing with it, there are things like art and laughter that are just as good a medicine as anything else. I take it really seriously.”

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This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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