Toronto Film Festival aka TIFF knows how to kick-off an international film, making the virtual experience first-class in every single way. As part of the master class series at TIFF, journalists from around the world had the opportunity to spend some quality time with Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, in an hour-long conversation moderated by Nekesa Mumbi Moody, editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter.
An eloquent pair, the “How to Get Away With Murder” superstar and her husband talked about launching their Black-owned studio, making it clear from the top of the conversation, and to the end, that their goal was for Davis to firmly take control of her destiny and to help other storytellers of color do the same thing.
It’s clear that they are doing nothing less than God’s good work.
For the past ten years, and some change, the Hollywood gatekeepers continued to express their collective shock that there is still prejudice and racism within the film industry. Their well-trained marketing and public relations teams issue press release after press release hammering keywords designed for sound bites that make is appear on the surface that positive change is right-around-the-corner. You know some of these buzz words, I am sure, the most annoying [for me] is diversity followed by inclusion.
Despite being the first Black woman to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony for acting, the uber-talented Viola Davis summed up the Hollywood game perfectly, saying, “the fight is not easy.”
Davis has earned her spot and then some breaking new ground in a career that just took off when she was in her 40s. It’s with this inside knowledge and passion that Davis and husband and producing partner, Julius Tennon, launched their company JuVee Productions, using as a blueprint, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN and Tyler Perry Studios.
The time is now. Never has there been more opportunity in Hollywood and beyond with the shrinking of movie theater-going audiences stepping foot inside traditional theaters and the rise of the streaming giants.
There is a certain way that folks-of-color talk. Our secret language. You either know the code or you don’t. And it’s not just what “we,” say but often the jewels lie in what we don’t say. Or what we say, half-way using tone — every so slight — to highlight the nuances.
My eyes never left the screen during the TIFF virtual master class, honing in on Nekesa Mumbi Moody (editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter) questions — scooping up subtext like a hungry little squirrel would gather fallen nuts.
Their hard work has paid off. JuVee Productions has a first-look production deal with Amazon for both film and TV. Good news for creative talent everywhere. Davis advised people from underrepresented communities who are inspired by her career to be the change they want to see. Tennon shared an important fact — that nothing has been handed to JuVee Productions on a proverbial silver platter. No, they continue to fight even with the aforementioned first-look deal.
“What we do is hard, because the way we want to tell stories and the narratives we want to tell, we want to see people of color across the board normalized,” he argued about finding ideas and talent and stories that are relevant to diverse audiences and a global market.
On JuVee Production’s slate Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Last Defense” (ABC), the docuseries “Giving Voice” (Netflix), and “Woman King” with fellow Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
Here is what Oscar winner Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon had to share about why they started their production company — JuVee Productions during TIFF’s Master Class moderated by Nekesa Mumbi Moody editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter.
ON WHY THEY STARTED JuVee Productions:
Originally we [JuVee Productions] started as a vehicle for my career because I was not getting the roles that I wanted. If we weren’t the change we wanted to see, then I was going to continue to have the same kind of roles available to me. After the [film] “The Help” it became very apparent. It became very obvious that we had to find emerging artists and find that material. There’s still a huge part of the work where you’re always fighting for your autonomy, you’re always fighting for those projects that are absolutely reflective of your talent, where you are on the same playing field as your white counterparts. And the solution is not easy.
AN INTERESTING FACT MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW:
The original name of the production company was Mandinka named after a West African tribe.
AT THE CORE OF THE PRODUCTION COMPANY:
We decided we wanted to be the voices for the voiceless, give [an] opportunity to those underserved, and not having any opportunity to get work in the industry. We don’t want them to be a device, an image, just serving a White-centric narrative. We really want autonomy for people on the periphery of [the] narrative. That became its own sort of fight. We’re usually on the outskirts, serving the White character all the time.
ON BEING RECOGNIZED BY HOLLYWOOD IN HER 40’S:
I’m so happy that I had a slow burn because it’s helped me as a producer… That’s why we have so many beautiful voices in our company because we know the road.
ON THE STRUGGLE TO DELIVER PROJECTS MADE BY POC:
What we do is hard, because the way we want to tell stories and the narratives we want to tell, we want to see people of color across the board normalized.
DID WINNING AN OSCAR OPEN MORE FILM ROLES?:
What we [Viola Davis and Julius Tennon] both saw clearly was that the roles were not there. We looked at what was coming down the traditional Hollywood pipeline … there was nothing for her. There was no time to wait. Once the window opens [and] you get this platform then you have to take advantage of it. We put our money [into the production company] and we are going to get this started. And we did. For six years, we worked from our house. In the last four years, we’ve been in an office and we’ve grown.
WHERE IS THE PRODUCTION COMPANY GOING IN 2020 AND BEYOND?:
Along with film and television, we have immersive and interactive.
We wanted to be the change we wanted to see.
To follow and learn more go to @juveeproductions — http://www.juveeproductions.com — @violadavis· Twitter —@TIFF_NET · Twitter — @Lapacazo