As a young girl, “The View” co-host and Emmy Award-winning legal journalist Sunny Hostin would use a hairbrush as a mic and mimic Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer in the mirror. She didn’t have many broadcast idols she could emulate — in those times, there weren’t many women of color headlining news shows.
Now, with the launch of her latest venture, Roots & Wings Productions, Hostin will be able to spotlight characters neglected by Hollywood. The global, multi-platform media company will develop and create content for film and television, highlighting important social justice issues and meaningful, inclusive stories.
“I want to make sure that someone watches and knows that seeing an Afro Latina journalist on screen is a possibility,” Hostin told Variety.
In tandem with the company’s debut, Hostin has announced Roots & Wings’ first project: a drama series based on her new novel, “Summer on the Bluffs,” created in partnership with ABC Signature and Octavia Spencer’s Orit Entertainment banner. “I’m humbled to have the backing of a company like Disney,” Hostin said. “We’re going to create really intentional premium and diverse content together that centers on women and people of color, as well as people in the LGBTQ+ community — stories that I think will be fresh and that you haven’t seen before.”
Hostin teamed with Spencer after reaching out to the “Hidden Figures” actress following a panel she moderated in New York City for one of Spencer’s shows, Apple TV Plus’ “Truth Be Told.” Hostin had a rough edit of the book in her bag and handed it to Spencer after the panel, unsure of what would come out of that bold decision. Spencer ended up calling her right after her flight back home, saying that she couldn’t stop reading the book and saw a future in collaborating. “I actually couldn’t believe that the Octavia Spencer thought that what I wrote was special enough and authentic enough to produce and work on together,” Hostin recalled.
Per the logline, “Summer on the Bluffs” will follow three twentysomething women in their quest to secure the inheritance rights to their beloved godmother’s house on the beautiful beaches of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.
Moreover, last fall, Hostin announced the development of another drama series. Titled “The Counsel,” the show is inspired by her life and career as a federal prosecutor. Ridley Scott and his banner, Scott Free, and Universal Television at Fox are producing. The series follows four thirty-something women of color who are leaders in their respective fields of journalism, law, politics and public relations. They must rely on their lifelong friendship to overcome a scandal that threatens to unravel everything they’ve achieved. Regina Jansen, an associate producer attached to the project, will join Roots & Wings.
“People don’t think of criminal trial lawyers as storytellers because we’re seeking justice on behalf of victims. But we’re telling stories to juries and, as a legal journalist, there may be some intersection with social justice. So telling those types of stories comes quite naturally to me, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. I’ve sketched books out and created worlds and characters, and there just was a point where I had to get behind the camera,” Hostin explained.
Roots & Wings has also hired Ranard Caldwell as its head of development to work with Hostin and existing partners to develop original programming, and films and series adapted from Hostin’s IP, and to uplift marginalized and underrepresented voices and talent. Most recently, he worked in development at STX Entertainment and at Martin Chase Productions supporting Debra Martin Chase (“The Cheetah Girls,” “The Princess Diaries”) and her overall deal at NBCUniversal.
“Sunny is one of America’s most trusted voices with fantastic creative taste and a gutsy instinct regarding what resonates with viewers,” Caldwell said in a statement. “I’m excited to help her grow Roots & Wings Productions while developing impactful stories that are authentic, timely and compelling.” Caldwell was also accepted into Lena Waithe and Essence Magazine’s Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab, a fellowship program to enhance ingenuity in generating narratives, and professional development to polish and broaden creative skills.
“As a federal prosecutor, I sought justice by telling the stories of victims. As a legal journalist, I report the stories of headlines around the country. As an author, I’ve told my story as well as created stories centering on people of color,” Hostin added. “I am now so incredibly honored to also actualize stories behind the camera. It’s thrilling to be able to showcase creators of color and to bring their inspiring stories to life and to uplift a new wave of representation on screen.”
Here, Hostin tells Variety the production company’s origin story, the impetus powering Roots & Wings and how excited she is about its potential.
What’s the story behind the name and the branding of Roots & Wings?
I was on a call with these really powerful women — the president of the Minnesota Lynx; the president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, which I am a member of; the president of Jack and Jill; and other Black Greek letter organizations. We were all networking and Johnnetta B. Cole, the past president of Spelman College, talked about roots and wings. She was talking about the fact that, as women that have been in this business and in different industries for a long time, we are rooted, but at this point, what we need to make sure is to bring other people along. We’re now in a position to be at the table, but we need to bring these younger people along and provide them with what they need to become established and give them the wings to become stronger and better. And I just kept on thinking, “Roots and wings, that’s something I believe in!” I wrote it down on a Post-it and put it on my computer. And so, when this opportunity came up, the first thing I said was, “Can somebody please look up and see if Roots & Wings Productions is already taken?” And it wasn’t.
What would it have meant to you growing up to see more women or young girls like yourself on screen?
When I talked to my parents about my aspirations for broadcast journalism, my mother basically told me that I should become a lawyer or a doctor because no one looked like me on television (this was pre-Oprah). Had there been, I would have become a journalist first, but I went to law school instead. Had there been anyone that looked like me, I would have been in this business for a lot longer and I would have been able to open up doors for more people. That’s just my truth. I know how important representation is, and there isn’t really a day that goes by that someone does not reach out to me regarding similar concerns either — as a viewer or as someone in the industry. It’s just unbelievable. And then I think back to the time when I didn’t see me on air, and I think with this production company, we’ll be able to make that possible.
How hands-on will you be with the series “Summer on the Bluffs”?
Since I wrote the book, I’m very involved. I am in the business together now with Octavia Spencer, and we’re looking to make this world as authentic as we can when we put it on screen. What was really important to me writing this book was that, for so long, when I have traveled to cover social justice issues, I have had to read case files, and all you get is death and destruction, doom and gloom. I just sometimes want to read about Black joy! I want escapism. I would go into airport bookstores, and would actually look at the covers of books, looking for Black protagonists on the cover and I never found them. Toni Morrison says that if there’s a book that you want to read and you can’t find it, then you need to write it. I’ve taken that seriously. I started writing and creating this world based on the fact that there were only a couple of places that Black folks were allowed to buy beachfront property — Oak Bluffs, Highland Point and Sag Harbor, to name a few. I put the proposal together for “Summer on the Bluffs,” and brought it to HarperCollins on a Wednesday. By Friday they said they wanted to do three books together. I think it was because they realized that there’s a thirst for historical fiction centered on people of color, and that’s what Octavia thought about it as well. What I love about the book is that the characters are real as far as I’m concerned, because while they’re fictional, they’re based on reality in a sense. I wanted to make sure that they were multi-dimensional and authentic. Even though it is fiction and even though it is a beach read, it shines a light on the issues that Black folks have to deal with all the time and our lived experience as Afro-Latinos. We had to deal with colorism, sexism, infertility, betrayal, death and loss — I explored all of that. There’s something for everyone in this book.
Why do you think that Roots & Wings is an important addition to the Hollywood landscape?
I am very hopeful as to where the industry is headed in terms of diversity and inclusion. I mean, if you look at just the Oscars, you have this incredible celebration of talent, and of the work. I think that there’s this incredible thirst for more diverse content. We’re seeing more and more projects being greenlit, and the case for it being good for business has been proven. People point to things like Marvel’s “Black Panther,” and yeah, I agree that was unbelievably successful, but then I point to other things like HBO’s “Insecure,” and to different genres like musical theater (“Hamilton”). Diverse casts are really speaking to what our country really is, and people want to go out and see this content. I think our production company is going to tap into that and give people what they want. I’ve seen it happening, and it’s just so wonderful to turn on the television and see diverse content being developed. I’ve always been more of a reader than a TV watcher, but since the pandemic, I stream. We sort of look for something every night, and there’s so much to choose from: “Godfather of Harlem” with Forest Whitaker, “One Night in Miami,” I could go on and on. I’m happy to be able to lend my vision and my voice to what I think is going to be a growing trend.
Roots & Wings and Hostin are repped by WME, Schreck Rose Dapello Adams Berlin & Dunham LLP and Jonesworks.
A version of this story will appear in this week’s issue of Variety.