In an episode from 2018, the actor Glynn Turman sat on a settee along with his arm draped affectionately round his spouse, Jo-An, as the 2 recounted their experiences collectively for the documentary sequence “Black Love.” Amid discuss of marriage, kids and a meet-cute at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, Turman paused to broaden the dialog with an impassioned plea.
“We’re not angels, we’re not saints — we’re human beings,” he stated, talking concerning the notion of Black Americans and their relationships. “Let’s not leave out any of the wonderful, wonderful love and the bonds that we, as a people,” have shared, “having gone through an extremely, extremely unique experience in this country.”
“To have us come through it,” he added, “with our family members, and what that every one entails, is not solely essential, it’s biblical.”
On Sept. 5, “Black Love” returned to the Oprah Winfrey Network for a fourth season, at a time when Turman’s phrases and the present’s trustworthy portrayal of Black lives appear much more pressing. But in a 12 months marked by pandemic and protests over racial injustice, the sequence additionally provides respite and nuance — an alternative choice to the relentless imagery of a Black American expertise bounded by anguish and rage.
“We know that Black people are happy and married and have been making it work for a long time,” stated Tommy Oliver, who created the sequence along with his spouse, Codie Elaine Oliver. The two spoke in a Zoom interview final month from their residence in Los Angeles.
“We need to see it, and we have not seen it,” Tommy continued. “It’s been relegated to … nowhere on TV for the longest.”
Across three seasons, the “Black Love” method has remained so simple as it has efficient. Each episode options clips of varied , some well-known and a few not, not less than certainly one of whom (however normally each) is Black. Couples are filmed side-by-side in their very own houses, having frank conversations about their relationships and delivering tender moments wherein they reminisce, cry, belly-laugh and luxury one another.
Their tales vary from goofy to gut-wrenching. Some are nonetheless within the honeymoon part. Others have toasted to their Golden anniversary. A couple of interviews concentrate on the loving bond between a mum or dad and baby.
For viewers feeling the pangs of sheltering in place, remoted from family and friends, there’s a way of familiarity and luxury in watching these focus on intercourse, parenthood, monetary selections, divorce scares, infidelities and diseases. But if the present feels acquainted, additionally it is distinctive.
“Has there been something exactly like this previously?” requested Beretta E. Smith-Shomade, an affiliate professor at Emory University who research race and illustration in tv. “For Black folks, most certainly not,” she stated, including, “I think it’s tapping into a need that we all have for connection, particularly, now.”
OWN pointed to the scores, noting that the sequence ranked No. 1 in its Friday time slot final season amongst African-American girls ages 25 to 54. The community president, Tina Perry, referred to as the present “a unicorn in the TV universe,” and stated the Olivers seize tales which can be usually discovered solely in scripted fare.
Season four contains the married TV actors Dulé Hill and Jazmyn Simon; the sports activities journalist Jemele Hill and her husband, Ian Wallace; and the comedic YouTubers Marcus and Angel Tanksley. A stand-alone special will be devoted to Karega Bailey and Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, two San Francisco Bay Area recording artists who have had to navigate the loss of their newborn daughter. Their story and several others align with this season’s focus on mental health.
“There was a concern for us about whether or not this conversation would be able to hold our story,” Karega said. “It is incredibly difficult to articulate all the nuances of grief. We hope viewers will be able to gather that grief is love after loss.”
Though unscripted, the series sidesteps the explosive antics that typify many reality TV franchises. Viewers won’t see back-stabbing confessional interludes. There’s no expert aiming to “fix” the couples.
“The way we started this, it was meant to be a conversation,” Codie said of the series, which she and Tommy began shooting as an independent feature documentary in 2014, shortly after getting engaged. In part, they sought advice for themselves. They interviewed friends, colleagues and acquaintances, soon amassing dozens of interviews — including with Viola Davis, Sterling K. Brown and their spouses.
“We came to them saying, ‘You’re our example,’” Codie recalled. “‘I want all of the worst, scariest things that can happen in a marriage, but I want to know how you got through them.’”
The concept had originated in Codie’s mind several years before she met Tommy, when she was single and a graduate student in 2008 at the University of Southern California. Bleak headlines at the time, noting that high-achieving Black women were less likely to marry and that marriage among Black people was in decline, left her fearful of her prospects for a lasting relationship.
But as she watched then-Senator Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, ascend into the national spotlight, she regained hope.
“That was the thing that allowed me to understand how important it was that Black love be visible,” she said. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to create a space where Black love lives.”
When Codie met Tommy in 2013, he was working as a film producer, and the two soon started working on “Black Love” together. Ultimately, they decided to pitch it as a series and partnered with OWN, which debuted the show in 2017. (The Olivers own and license the content independently through their entertainment production company, Confluential Content.)
The actress Vanessa Bell Calloway and her husband, Tony Calloway, appeared in the first episode. Without any idea of where the footage might end up, they contributed to their friends’ nascent project, Bell Calloway said, because “I think Black love often gets overlooked.”
“Sometimes,” she continued, “just seeing Black folks being together and loving each other, it gives people inspiration.”
The production is as simple as the formula. During interviews, Codie sits off-camera delivering conversation prompts, and Tommy operates the camera. The two-person setup, taking place in the subjects’ homes, is the key to teasing out stories that feel genuine, they said.
“It’s not about salaciousness,” Tommy added. “It’s not about manipulation.”
Part of what makes the show special is an “aura of authenticity” that sets it apart from other televised fare, said Ann duCille, a professor emerita of English at Wesleyan University. “It’s real people — even though many of them are actors and entertainers — talking candidly about their real lives and loves,” she said.
“I want to believe that the subjects are indeed telling it as it is,” she added, “but here I find I don’t care if I’m being snookered.”
Every groundbreaking effort, however, comes with its own challenges. In her 2018 book, “Technicolored: Reflections on Race in the Time of TV,” duCille wrote about the “burden of representation,” referring to early Black television stars who were not allowed to simply act. They were expected to “carry the whole history of the race on their backs,” she said.
The “Black Love” creators are familiar with that pressure. Some viewers have taken to social media to criticize the show’s relatively low number of interracial and same-sex couples. Others have criticized their inclusion at all.
Last month, many Twitter and YouTube users condemned a minute-long Season 4 teaser that featured mostly fair-skinned Black women paired with darker men. Critics said the video reinforced a painful, centuries-old prejudice that treats darker-skinned women as less desirable. (Tommy acknowledged that they had “screwed up” with the teaser, explaining that a wider range of skin tones would be evident throughout the season, apparent in a longer trailer released several days later.)
The Olivers said they would continue to find and feature Black stories using their many platforms, which, aside from the docu-series, include editorial and video content on their companion website.
But they won’t feel compelled to do it just because their affirmation of Black love dovetails with the current Hollywood trend, in which expressions of support for Black lives can often ring hollow. They’ll continue, Tommy said, because it’s what he and Codie have always done as filmmakers.
“I think the world has become a bit more aligned with where we’ve always been trying to go,” he said. “Now that more people are paying attention to it? Cool. We’ve always known it’s important. The world is just now catching up.”