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The team behind JuVee Productions, Viola Davis and Julius Tennon's production company, described how they offer a leg up to emerging creatives of color by giving them a "foot in the door" into an…
The team behind JuVee Productions, Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s production company, described how they offer a leg up to emerging creatives of color by giving them a “foot in the door” into an industry that often sidelines them.
Variety, in partnership with Dell Technologies, hosted a panel conversation with JuVee CEO Davis, president of development and production Tennon, head of television, development and production Andrew Wang and senior vice president of theatrical motion picture, development and production Rob Williams during the Sundance Film Festival. The discussion, moderated by Variety editor-in-chief Claudia Eller, included how the company promotes the importance of authentic and representative stories, insight into upcoming projects — such as Showtime‘s “First Ladies” series starring Davis as Michelle Obama — and how the company navigates pandemic-related challenges.
“Unless we had a production company, unless we went out there and found those emerging artists and found those narratives, then there just wouldn’t be any roles to match my talent or potential, so therefore we created JuVee out of necessity,” Davis said.
Tennon added that the company seeks to build a “pipeline” that will continue to cultivate new talent and elevate voices. Beyond mere representation, the husband-wife duo wants to pioneer stories that see people of color for who they truthfully are.
“With the genesis of the production company, I had the mindset of ‘You have to teach people how to see you and how to enter your world,’ and I think that in the past we’ve entered the world with a very limited view of who people of color are,” Davis explained.
The company, which was founded 10 years ago, has gone through myriad changes since its inception as Davis and Tennon look to push the bounds of innovative storytelling. In 2016, Wang came on board from Bravo, when ABC Studios became a partner in providing funds for JuVee’s TV production arm. More recently, JuVee has partnered with Amazon for a two-year, first-look film deal, which was re-upped in July 2020 to include television.
“To finally be at a place where the mission was to identify … the not-wanted narratives and celebrate them as normal, as we just live, and we don’t always have to be struggling or dealing with how hard it is to be us — it was just such a breath of fresh air,” Wang said.
Speaking on the pandemic, the panelists said JuVee went largely unscathed in terms of disrupted productions. But they did experience delays with pilot production and pitching; plus the production start date for “First Ladies,” which will now begin filming in February in Atlanta, was pushed back.
In addition to focusing on Mrs. Obama, “First Ladies” will delve into 100 years of American history through its depiction of other First Ladies, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). While Davis said she is “terrified” to portray Obama, she welcomes the role as a challenge fitting for her more than 30-year-long career.
“You get to a point where you do go on automatic,” Davis said. “To a certain extent it’s like you have to be woken up — you need a challenge — and I would say this is my wake up, this is my challenge to create this character that everybody feels a sense of ownership to.”
Another upcoming project for the company is “The Woman King,” set in the mid-1800s in Benin, where Davis portrays Nanisca, a military general of the all-woman Agoji tribe. Directed by “Love & Basketball” and “The Old Guard” filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, from a script penned by Dana Stevens, the redemption drama centers on Nanisca both as a fighter and a mother learning to forgive herself for the past.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Tennon said. “With the kind of content we’re creating, we’re exemplifying to Hollywood that we’re the type of company that can take prestige and elevation to another level with narratives about people of color and that’s our intention in both film and TV.”