On average, I receive 100 emails a day from perky publicists who want my attention and I do make effort to review each, and everyone but something about the Juneteenth comedy, “Block Party,” caught my eye. Perhaps it was the beauty of actress Margaret Avery (“Color Purple”) representing the matriarch in a modern and fresh way on the movie poster.
“Block Party” stars Antoinette Robinson (“Dear White People”), Luenell (“Hacks”), Faizon Love (“Friday”), and the aforementioned Avery, directed by Dawn Wilkinson and set for a wide theatrical release via Iconic Events Releasing on June 8 and streaming by BET and BET+ starting June 16.
The film is produced by Branch Out Productions, a female-and African-American-owned production company, founded by Lisa Mathis, Lisa Oliver-King, and Andola Mathis, which is based out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Producing alongside Mathis, Allen, and Suh are industry veterans Gabriel Roth and Marvin Towns Jr.
“Block Party” centers on Keke McQueen (Antoinette Robertson), a recent Harvard grad who is eager to ditch her hometown of Grand Rapids, MI, for her dream job in Atlanta. But when Keke discovers that her once-super-sharp Grandma Janice (Academy Award nominee Avery) is showing early signs of dementia, she puts her career at stake to save Grandma’s beloved Juneteenth Block Party, even if it means dealing with her Black tiger mom (Golden Brooks), her gossipy relatives (Luenell, Birgundi Baker), an oddball fire marshal (Faizon Love), and her ex-boyfriend (Terayle). In the process, Keke falls back in love with her hometown.
The film also stars Charlyne Yi, John Amos, Gary Anthony Williams, Brad William Henke, Bill Cobbs, and Merle Dandridge. Branch Out Productions’ Lisa Mathis wrote the script and story with Krista Suh & Matt Allen, who are also both producers. The film is also being produced by BuzzFeed Studios.
I jumped on the opportunity to interview Lisa Mathis, who is president of Branch Out Productions and the producer and co-screenwriter on “Block Party.” She shares the story credit with screenwriters Krista Suh and Matt Allen, who are also both producers.
Mathis was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and got her start working at the local Fox affiliate on a weekly kid show while earning her Master’s degree in Television and Film from the University of Michigan. After graduation, she started working for Nickelodeon Studios in Florida and was later hired by E! Entertainment television and helped produce several documentaries for E! True Hollywood Stories.
By the late 1990s, Mathis began producing hip-hop-based content for Digital Entertainment Networks, and after the 2000s internet crash stepped into the world of real estate while raising her family. In 2019, she returned to production and partnered with fellow founders Lisa Oliver King and Andola Mathis, and established Branch Out Productions.
Their first film, “Mighty Oak,” was picked up by Paramount Pictures and was one of the few films distributed during the pandemic in Summer 2020. A few months later, she executive produced “Run & Gun,” which was also distributed by Paramount Pictures in the winter of 2020.
In 2020, while sheltering in place due to the pandemic, Mathis raised funds through private investors and partnered with writing team Matt Allen and Krista Suh to start penning “Block Party” and by the fall of 2021, “Block Party” started filming in Grand Rapids.
Here is what Mathis had to share about making movies.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: Congratulations, I really enjoyed “Block Party” — I had a feeling that this film had some personal roots. What inspired this film?
LISA MATHIS: Thank you and to answer, part of the inspiration came from my childhood. There was this park that we would visit every Sunday, after church. Everybody would hang out in this park. All of the neighbors would pull up and we would barbecue in the summer and bring out their boombox. Gosh, I’m showing my age.
LAS: And it’s beautiful. I think there’s a park just like that all over the U.S.
LM: Right. The people would kind of throw a party until the lights went out and the neighborhood would turn up and people just had a great time. And so, that’s the idea for the film [“Block Party”].
LAS: Gosh, Lisa, I can hear the love and the nostalgia in your voice. Plus, you shot the film in your hometown. Good for you!
LM: Yes, that was so exciting. We shot the film in Michigan. I was absolutely passionate about shooting in Martin Luther King Park, that’s the name of the park.
LAS: Noted. So you took something that was a part of your cultural DNA and turned it into a screenplay. How long did that process take?
LM: I started talking with my husband, who is also a screenwriter, about the idea in 2020. We want to create films that we want to see and we understood that everyone can relate to a block party.
LM: And having diversity in front and behind the scenes in all of our films is vital. Our goal [Branch Out Productions] is to create films and curate stories that people find relatable. Naturally, there are many things that are very intrinsic to the African American culture, but there are also things that the average White American can definitely relate to, like a block party, just in general, and all the craziness that goes on in the community and our own family circles. We completed the screenplay by the spring of 2021, and we started gathering our investors most of whom are people of color and women. 50% of your investors are people of color or women
LAS: Ms. Lisa, can you roll that back, please. 50% of your investors are people of color or women? Did I hear that correctly?
LM: That’s correct, more than 50% of our investors are people of color or women and we are so, very happy about that. Of course, we get at least 15% of our funding from traditional sources. Our goal is to build generational wealth.
LAS: I think that our community is finally waking up to the fact that we are stuck in generational poverty.
LM: Exactly, there are so many solid investment opportunities and I think that the African American community, as well as the female community, have not been exposed to or know about those opportunities the same way that other diverse communities haven’t been exposed to those opportunities.
LAS: This is very exciting.
LM: We must take it upon ourselves to bring these people, who are traditionally people who would invest in real estate or invest in the stock market, to understand the value of investing in films.
LM: Exactly. This is just another way to diversify a portfolio. What we do, each month is to bring in these investors and meet with them. Cathing them up with what’s going on and explaining the process to them, step by step, how the process works and they appreciate it, a lot.
LAS: I can imagine. Hey, Lisa, I love “Block Party” it really took me back.
LM: Thank you, that means a lot. It was important, for us, to stay authentic to the African American family, to break away from those stereotypes, as much as we can and it was a bonus to shoot in my hometown, Grand Rapids.
LAS: What do want viewers to know about the comedy “Block Party”?
LM: That it was made with love and that it opens, theatrically, on June 8 and will begin streaming, on BET and BET+ starting June 16.
Check out the extended sizzle reel to see more from the film: https://wdrv.it/36c800dc2.