It is an exciting time for Black storytellers. From Get Out’s multiple Oscar nominations, to Black Panther mania and sky-high anticipation for the March return of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, it seems like Hollywood is embracing bold, original voices among people of color like never before. But to see who’s got next in this Renaissance of content, you have to move your eyes to a smaller screen—where the Jordan Peele’s and Ava DuVernay’s of tomorrow are working today.
Enter Mel Jones, who cut her teeth as a producer on the hit Netflix series Dear White People and makes her directorial debut with the episodic digital series Leimert Park. The short-form show, about three millennial women just living life in the iconic and predominantly Black neighborhood of Los Angeles, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month to rave reviews and plenty of comparisons to Sex And The City. However, under Jones’s direction, Leimert Park feels more like a cousin of Issa Rae’s Insecure — which similarly explores a hub of Black culture in Los Angeles with absolute authenticity—than a descendant of a show in which New York is as rooted in reality as Disneyland.
Regardless, it’s putting Mel Jones on the map, and we were lucky enough to get her on the phone for a chat before she blows up for real.
As someone who moved from D.C. to L.A. neighborhood Leimert Park, what was it about the area that inspired you to create this story?
Well, when I moved to Los Angeles, I realized early that, like a lot of other major cities, there aren’t that many areas that Black folks are living there and doing something, especially with gentrification rapidly taking over these neighborhoods. I saw quickly that a neighborhood that had that kind of artsy, creative feel to it like I was used to from the East Coast was Leimert Park, and after moving there, I fell in love with it. After living there through a marriage, a divorce and becoming a mom, that love never faded and even grew from the culture that came from it.
Some of the scenes we shot there were true, Ava DuVernay was really a rapper there, Kendrick Lamar would come to Chaos to check out local talent. And I wanted to give back to the neighborhood that had embraced me for the last nine years. Mostly every building we shot in was a real business in Leimert Park that was owned by a person of color. I found myself considering Leimert home, and I felt like there was a story there that needed to be told, so I would go back to the locals to make sure it was told properly.
The story arc of the characters definitely showed their growth while living in Leimert Park. Were there real-life inspirations for your characters?
Oh, I’m definitely Mikki, Kendra and Bridget, in different ways, just like they remind me of people that I know who are also those characters. When we went into the writing room to create our cast, we definitely pulled from both our own personal experiences as well as those from friends of ours. My friends won’t ever know who I pulled from or what exactly I took from them to put in this story, but they may see a little of themselves in the characters.
When and where can we watch Leimert Park?
We’re still weighing our options. After showing at Sundance, there were a lot of people and companies who showed interest in the show, so it’s definitely up in the air. The six episodes shown could be the first season depending on the platform we decide on, but obviously if Television or a network came calling, we’d have to change our strategy versus if the show lived on a digital platform like Youtube Red. You have a show like Awkward Black Girl that was purely digital in its distribution and saw success come from it, and Issa obviously went on to her work with HBO, so the opportunities are endless. We’re just happy for the positive reviews.
Do you see benefits from staying in the digital content space? Would you be opposed to sticking with digital content versus the big opportunities and bigger checks that the television industry could bring?
I mean, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to end up on HBO or Netflix or something. But we’re in a space now that digital content is bringing in big-time returns in audience development and sustainability. Again, we’ve all seen the success that a show like Awkward Black Girl can bring. Debuting the show at Sundance showed us that we’re on the right track and have the possibility of taking Leimert Park to new heights, so as of now, anything is possible. We know where the story is gonna go, it’s just up to where we decide to land to see how it goes.
Did you have any expectations when you went to Sundance this year?
I mean, no (laughs). I look at it from a stance of wanting to make something relevant specifically for Black women because we don’t really have diversity and representation in our stories, or when we do and we get that one story, we’re limited to that one singular story. And there’s more stories to be told out here for us, so there’s room for all of us to grow. For me, I wanted to inspire people and have Black women look beautiful on screen, I wanted to show more representations of our lives of who we are, and I’m down to do that however I can. The lifestyle of Millennials and everything we go through is popular content right now, so there’s a story to be told here.
The main reason of going to Sundance was to put the show on a platform that I couldn’t get anywhere else, so that we’d get our hands on new viewers who enjoyed the show, and so that you’d call me and other members of the press would call. The hard work and the gamble paid off, and now I can talk about the importance of telling our story.
With more and more women speaking out about the abuses they have faced in Hollywood, do you see any changes so far in the way that business is handled?
I’ll be honest in saying that no, I haven’t seen changes. Sundance saw a lot of sales, and there were a large number of projects that surrounded female empowerment stories, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. With these issues coming to the forefront, it’s now created a need in the market, so I expect more projects that may be bringing these topics to the world, where they also may be taking advantage of them, too. I don’t know if it’s been as much change as it has been noise, and one of the main reasons why there weren’t any major buys out of Sundance is because a lot of these studio heads have been fired for these accusations. So while companies figure out where the direction of what they stand for is headed, it leaves opportunity for more changes to happen.
I’ve been blessed to find mentors who were Black women and work with companies who understand me as a Black woman, so I didn’t have to go through those power struggles to pitch these projects. Now in this next phase, I know I’m gonna have to in talking to these companies who may not understand, but working with people like that have prepared me for these new experiences. The power of the Black entertainment star is proven in the numbers, and when companies like Netflix are willing to put the money behind the talent, we’ll see more and more looking to take that leap.
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