MADE By Ashley White
As a hopeful romantic, I was excited to see the arrival of a new docu-series on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) titled, Black Love. Seeing new and familiar couples in the trailer happily reminisce on the day they met gave me all the feels, but I was even more intrigued by the show’s creators, Codie & Tommy Oliver. The filmmakers fell in love and got married while working on the docu-series together, which is a fascinating love story on its own. In this exclusive interview with MADE, director Codie Oliver and producer Tommy Oliver get candid about their first experience working together.
“How did Black Love come about?”
“Around 2007 or 2008, the media was aggressively putting out a message about a Black marriage crisis and about Black women being the least desirable. Saying that the more education you have, the less likely you are to find a man,” explains Codie. “Those headlines—though there was data to contribute to the story—the headlines did the most damage because they didn’t give any context. They didn’t give any context about how people are generally getting married later. How as Black people, being the most financially oppressed in this country, it’s hard to maintain relationships and marriages.”
“As a Black woman who was single at the time, I felt like the divorce rate was high and the media was telling me that statistically I can’t find someone and fall in love and have a happy marriage. It was just very sad. At the same time, I felt it was important to see the other side. This was before I met Tommy. If the media is saying we can’t do something and we know that happy couples exist, then maybe we just need to see them and hear their stories. At that time, the Obama’s were elected into office and everyone was just obsessed with them and their Black love. It felt beautiful to see them, but it also felt like we need more. It shouldn’t all hinge on this one couple, so I wanted to create a space where Black love stories lived.”
“It wasn’t until I met Tommy in 2013 and told him about [my idea] and he said, “Ok, this is a documentary and we’re going to do it. And we’re going to do it tomorrow,” because that’s who Tommy is. He makes a decision and he moves quickly. So that’s what we did. We set out to make a feature-length documentary. Fast forward to two years later and 50 some odd interviews in, and we realized we had such beautiful, robust stories and that there was more to it than 90 minutes. We decided to do a docu-series. The first episode is how love begins, the stories of people meeting and the other episodes are about challenges that come up in a relationship. That’s really how we structured the series so that we could get in all these diverse stories. That was really important being able to show that no two relationships are the same.”
For the docu-series, the duo has interviewed various couples including Meagan Good and Devon Franklin, Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, Tia Mowry and Cory Hardrict, Shanice Williams and Flex Alexander. “We don’t claim to have the secret. We don’t claim to have one way to get from year one to year seventy, so it was really important to show all the diverse couples and the choices they made to work on strengthening their marriages,” says Codie.
When it came to selecting couples, the process happened organically. “There were either couples that we knew, respected and liked. Or it was a couple that somebody had to vouch for. There were couples that aren’t perfect, but they make it work.” Tommy says.
“It was also important to us that they were together for an good amount of time. That was loosely ten years give or take,” says Codie. That doesn’t mean they were married that long, but they were at least together that long so that they were drawing on their experiences. They weren’t just brand new and excited. They experienced something together that they could reflect on.”
“I read that this is your first time working together. How was that experience?”
“Terrible!” Codie Walker blurts out and laughs.
“It was much better for me than it was for her,” answers Tommy.
(Here’s where the couple keeps it honest yet hilarious.)
Codie: The thoughtful answer is that it was not always hard, but it was very worthwhile. Worthwhile doesn’t even cover it because we believe in what were doing and we also believe that the challenges of a married couple working together were worth it. Tommy’s looking at me like, “What are you talking about?” (laughs) We have very different personalities working and personally, so it was very challenging.
Tommy: In what ways, Codie?
Codie: It was our different styles.
Tommy: That’s vague.
Codie: That’s vague, but it’s real. (laughs)
Tommy: Give her an example.
Codie: You’re not fun. (laughs) It wasn’t always a specific thing.
Tommy: You said we had different styles. What do you mean?
Codie: Tommy is a producer in every sense of the word. Sometimes when I wanted a husband, Tommy was producing. Meaning he was in work mode or was able to be in work mode all the time, while still being able to consider himself loving. Whereas for me, I need a bit more of a separation. And, maybe even a bit more coddling. So, we were challenged.
Tommy: As a producer, I don’t coddle. I don’t coddle in business at all. I’m a very direct person. I’m straightforward and I believed in what we were doing, what she was doing and sometimes that was me just pushing her, and then it would all work out.
Codie: I also think [working together] was an important process because we’re making this film about being married and the challenges from year one to year seventy, so for us doing it together it was just that more meaningful. I did this for you all! (laughs)
“What are your 5 tips for working with your significant other?”
Tommy: Don’t. (laughs)
Codie: Shut up, Tommy. (laughs) You know we never really thought and reflected on that, but the first thing to come to my mind is:
- Communicate respectfully your needs as a professional and a loving partner. And not just your needs—your notes, your feedback and your criticism. I would say that’s first and foremost but that’s really across the board between the relationship and the work. This is something that we’ve heard and not mastered. I’ve read and heard some other couples say, “Don’t talk about it in the bedroom.” Don’t talk about work at home even—well, it depends on how you work. I would say we cross over a lot more than we should in terms of when we talk about work. I think that’s something we should work on. We haven’t even set those boundaries yet.
- Tommy: It hasn’t worked out perfectly, but it’s a little helpful sometimes to say, “Can we have a producer conversation or a work conversation?” Because if not, it can be muddied as the critical or uncaring husband vs. the tough producer. Those can be easily [confused] and then all of a sudden, the wife is mad at the husband and not the director so it’s that’s important to alleviate that.
- Codie: Another thing we haven’t outlined, but it’s sort of unspoken is that you should be clear about your roles and duties when you’re working together. I think that’s easier when you’re a couple who runs a laundromat. When one person pays the bills and the other person does marketing. That’s the separation. I think with us in the creative field, there’s a lot of overlap. Also with Black Love, we built this from the ground up. It was just the two of us. Tommy was the cinematographer, the gaffer, the sound guy—everything. It was just the two of us and two cameras. He wore a lot of hats and I wore fewer —we both were wearing a lot of different hats. It was hard to say, “This is your lane, this is mine.” because we just had to get things done.
So will the two be working together again on upcoming projects?
“He’s got a lot of projects writing, directing and producing that I come in as a producer if I can lend something—whether that be a woman’s point of view or even just an extra hand as a producer and creative, says Codie. “We do have a lot more separate projects coming down the pipeline that we’re lending our skill sets to, but we aren’t half and half the way we are with Black Love. We’re moving a lot with Black Love and to us, it’s a movement.”
Catch the premiere of Black Love tonight on OWN at 10/9c.