‘Everything’s Gonna Be All White,’ ‘Uprooted’ Filmmakers Struggled to Get Funding. Then George Floyd Died
Director Avril Z. Speaks and executive producer Matt McDonough spent the better part of five years pitching their upcoming Discovery Plus docuseries “Uprooted,” which investigates the 1986 unsolved hanging death of Keith Warren, a 19-year-old Black man from Silver Spring, Md. But nobody wanted the project. Then, after George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, Speaks and McDonough began receiving phone calls.
“Suddenly people came out of the woodwork and were interested and wanted to have a conversation about making the series,” Speaks recalls. “We started getting interest from people – some people who we had already pitched the story to. It’s interesting that it took that event for people to understand that our (Black) stories matter.”
The three-part docuseries is one of several nonfiction offerings bowing during Black History Month, including Showtime’s “Everything’s Gonna Be All White” and “Lincoln’s Dilemma” on Apple TV Plus. “Uprooted,” which is debuting under Discovery Plus’ nascent “Black Voices” hub on Feb. 18, follows Warren’s sister Sherri and her 35-year fight against systemic corruption to find out what really happened to her brother.
“During the years we spent pitching this story to networks and platforms, one of the comments that people would always make was, ‘What’s the relevance?’” says Speaks. “If you take this story from the standpoint of families, Black families in particular, not being able to find justice and not feeling valued, that’s something that still exists today. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what makes this story relevant.”
“Profiled: The Black Man,” a four-part Discovery Plus series that will begin streaming Feb. 12, examines the origins of widespread stereotypes that have permeated society and impacted the lives of Black men in America for centuries. While the series highlights the difficulties Black men have and do face, it also spotlights and celebrates their triumphs.
Like “Uprooted,” it is being released as part of the streamer’s Black Voices hub, which will be available on the platform year-round and feature programming spotlighting the African American community.
“After what felt like a community awakening to racial injustice after the killing of George Floyd, I believe the world is primed to engage with this conversation in a different way,” says “Profiled: The Black Man” executive producer Kristen V. Carter. “My hope is that viewers not only watch this series, but they reflect on how they’ve perceived and treated Black men.”
The project is divided into four parts: “Black Men Are Dangerous,” “Black Men Are Absent Fathers,” “Black Men Devalue Black Women” and “Black Men Don’t Cry.”
“It was important to give each stereotype its own episode in order to fully be able to examine where it came from, properly debunk it with facts, data, and research, and give the audience a chance to digest the information,” says series creator and executive producer Trell Thomas, who worked on developing the concept for the series for two years with Beyonce Knowles’ mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, who serves as an executive producer.
Sacha Jenkins’s three-part docuseries “Everything’s Gonna Be All White” on Showtime also explores stereotypes derived from America’s inherent racism. Told solely from the perspective of people of color, the series debuting on Feb. 11 examines the complicated history of race in America. Episodes dissect a wide variety of topics including the true color of Jesus’ skin, Mt. Rushmore, General Custer, the racial disparities in 2nd Amendment gun rights and the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol attack.
“There’s nothing more topical than Jan. 6,” says Jenkins. “So many people see it as an act of patriotism and so many other people see it as an act of treason. Nothing more so illustrates the division in this country than that day.”
While “Everything’s Gonna Be All White” is a brutally honest take on race, it is punctuated with humor provided by the cultural commentators, actors, activists and artists interviewed throughout the series. Witty vignettes featuring fictional roommates played by white actor Michael Kaves and Black actress Liza Jessie Patterson illuminate the frustrations each side feels in being truly heard by the other.
“Humor is a sign of intelligence, and when you are talking about race, you need to have intelligent dialogue,” says Jenkins. “Sometimes things that are funny are uncomfortable, but if you can’t laugh at the stuff that’s uncomfortable, then things will never change.”
Like Speaks and McDonough, Jenkins began pitching “Everything’s Gonna Be All White” years ago but couldn’t get backing for the project until a Showtime exec gave it thumbs up.
“I took it all around town, as they say, and everyone passed,” says Jenkins. “All the major folks said no. It was eventually greenlit by Vinnie Malhotra,” Showtime’s executive VP of nonfiction programming. “He’s an Indian American from New Jersey. So, he’s a man of color in the position to give another man of color opportunities that other folks won’t,” the filmmaker points out. “The fact that the series got greenlit is a testament to having an executive who understands and empathizes and is also a part of that struggle.”
As with Jenkins, directors Barak Goodman and Jacqueline Olive were struck by the events of Jan. 6 and the clear divide in the county. At the time the duo had recently begun working on “Lincoln’s Dilemma,” a four-part Apple TV Plus docuseries about Lincoln’s challenged journey to end slavery that debuts Feb. 18.
“As we began the series, there was a lot of talk in the media that the country had never been so divided since the Civil War,” says Goodman. “Both sides of the political spectrum were invoking Lincoln as their moral hero. I was intrigued to understand better just how Lincoln navigated the tremendous cross-currents and divisions in his own time, and to understand how he managed to lead the country through its worst crisis by appealing to the “better angels of our nature” rather than our lowest common denominators.”
The series is narrated by Jeffrey Wright and features the voice of Bill Camp as Abraham Lincoln and Leslie Odom Jr.as Frederick Douglass.
“Though extraordinarily principled and politically adept, (Lincoln) was not the paragon that popular lore makes him out to be,” says Goodman. “What made Lincoln truly extraordinary — and a model for our times — was not that he was perfect from the get-go, but that he had the capacity to listen, to question himself, to adapt, and to grow.”
Olive adds: “The fact that Lincoln, with all of the powers of the Presidency, ultimately chose to repeatedly take action, despite his missteps and shifting motivations, speaks to an extraordinary openness that I was completely unaware of and is much-needed in politics today.”
Hulu will honor Black History month with “Oscar Peterson: Black + White,” a docu debuting on Feb. 15 that explores the life and legacy of jazz icon and composer. Directed by Barry Avrich, the doc features interviews with Billy Joel, Jon Batiste, Herbie Hancock, and Quincy Jones. While Peterson founded one of the greatest jazz quartets in the genre’s history and worked with legendary jazz artists including Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, and Stan Getz, and toured with Ella Fitzgerald, Avrich says it makes sense that his story has taken until now to be told.
“With Oscar Peterson there is not the same drama you might find with Miles Davis or Chet Baker and it’s drama and scandal that sells,” Avrich says. “I also think that Peterson spent his formative years living in Canada and that kept him off the radar in a significant way.”