Revelations Entertainment has explored a wide variety of topics since Morgan Freeman and computer-programmer-turned-producer Lori McCreary founded the production company two decades ago: The projects have been both global and universal, tackling South African politics (the 2009 feature “Invictus”) and women in power (CBS’ “Madam Secretary”) in addition to fundamental issues such as love, belief, rebellion and peace (the National Geographic docu-series “The Story of Us”).
But the impetus to form the company came from a deeply personal place in Freeman.
Like many men of his generation, Freeman grew up playing cowboy and watching Westerns. But, as an African-American, he didn’t see many people who looked like him riding high in the saddle on the big screen, literally or figuratively. There were a few who were given respectable but not necessarily fully developed roles, including “Spartacus” gladiator Woody Strode and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” co-star Rex Ingram, but most high-profile black actors appearing in mainstream films, such as Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, played subservient, stereotypical characters.
“There was no historical evidence that anyone black was doing anything other than nothing,” says Freeman.
The climate had changed significantly by the time Freeman had securely established himself a movie star in the mid-‘90s. He was proof of that. But even in success, there was an echo of how far we hadn’t come. As rich and well-rounded as his Oscar-nominated roles were, they still had him playing a pimp (1987’s “Street Smart”), a chauffeur (1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy”) and a convict (1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption”).
One day, Freeman expressed his frustration to his “Outbreak” co-star Dustin Hoffman, who told him he should start his own production company.
“The point was to address that loss, that lack, realizing that, ‘OK, so I’m dissatisfied, but nobody’s going to tell your story,’” says Freeman. “If you want your story told, you have to tell it yourself.”
Saying you’re going to do it is one thing. Making it work is another, especially when you’re a busy movie star traipsing the globe. Freeman needed a partner, so he turned to McCreary, who had produced his directorial debut “Bopha!” (1993), but at the time was still earning her living as a computer programmer.
“I remember saying, ‘What do you want to do?’ And she says, ‘I want to run my own company,’” recalls Freeman. “And I thought, ‘Well, heck, I need someone to do that for me, so why don’t we hook up?’”
“Inside, I was going, ‘Yes!” says McCreary. “But on the outside, I said, ‘So … what would that [company] look like?’”
Freeman explained his vision to McCreary. His ambitions went beyond achieving proper representation on the screen. He also wanted to explore challenging issues and reveal hidden truths, so they chose the name Revelations.
On the surface, the two would appear to have little in common. Freeman is an 80-year-old black man from Mississippi. McCreary is a white woman from Northern California, 24 years his junior. But from the beginning, working together on “Bopha!,” they found their thought processes were very similar.
“Whenever there was an argument or a discussion, we always had the same points we were making, whether the conversation was creative or financial,” says McCreary.
Freeman and McCreary launched Revelations with the announcement that they were developing a big screen adaptation of the novel “Rendezvous With Rama,” an intellectual sci-fi epic written by Arthur C. Clarke of “2001: A Space Odyssey” fame. (It’s still on their slate today, but now they plan to turn it into a TV series.) Their first completed project, a telefilm called “Mutiny,” debuted in 1999; it tells the story of 50 African-American seamen who refused to load live munitions on to ships in World War II in the wake of an explosion that killed 320 sailors and civilians, most of them black.
In the early days, Revelations had almost as many interns as salaried employees. But the size of its staff has ballooned in recent years as it’s ramped up production of factual TV programming such as the Cooking Channel show “Food: Fact or Fiction?” and “Through the Wormhole With Morgan Freeman,” which concluded its eighth season on Science earlier this year.
“A lot of people stay with us from project to project, and that’s really attributable to Lori’s management style,” says Kelly Mendelsohn, Revelations’ senior VP of production and finance. “She really focuses on the fact that they’re people with lives.”
Revelations’ most ambitious projects have been its two globe-trotting docu-series for National Geographic, “The Story of God” (2016) and “The Story of Us” (2017). The former had Freeman visiting exotic locales from Mayan temples in Guatemala to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, exploring the differences and, more often, the similarities in the way people worship. In the latter, Freeman travels the world talking to everyone from Ethiopian tribespeople to former President Clinton, in an effort to understand the common forces that bind humanity together.
“Morgan is not just a talking head. Those shows are very much his personal journey, and the audience goes along with him,” says Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks.
Often, Freeman finds himself in remote corners of the world that his acting fame has not penetrated.
“We were at the Bodhi tree where the Buddha was enlightened in India, and there was a lama teaching a bunch of people,” recalls James Younger, executive VP of factual productions for Revelations. “He had no idea who Morgan was, but they had this magnetic connection. He recognized not Morgan Freeman, the actor, but Morgan as a fascinating spiritual seeker.”
Like Freeman, McCreary is very interested in religion and spirituality, but she’s also a technophile with a computer science degree from UCLA. In September, she hired former Intel exec Kevin Corbett to head Revelations’ digital efforts, including potential short-form programming for such social platforms as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
It has to be thought-provoking content that sparks conversation and helps communities to effect change, Corbett says. “To me, that really lines up with the Revelations brand.”
In the meantime, Revelations remains committed to traditional content.
In addition to a multi-part docu-series about Rodney King, it’s also developing a range of scripted projects, including the big screen thriller “Cold Warriors” with Freeman attached to star.
The shingle is also looking to produce a series for a streaming outlet based on the life of legendary Western lawman Bass Reeves, a former slave who was one of the first black U.S. deputy marshals. One of the projects on Revelations’ initial slate back in 1997, it was originally meant to star Freeman, but he’s now aged out of the role.
On top of everything else, McCreary wants to win a lead actor Oscar for Freeman. While he took home a supporting actor Oscar for 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby,” he came up empty both times he was nominated for lead actor (“Driving Miss Daisy” and “Invictus,” in which he played South African President Nelson Mandela).
But, in Freeman’s dream scenario, they both take home statuettes.
“I want us to win an Oscar for best picture,” says Freeman. “You never know which [pic] is going to do that, but hopefully we have it in our back pocket.”