In an episode from 2018, the actor Glynn Turman sat on a sofa with his arm draped affectionately around his wife, Jo-An, as the two recounted their experiences together for the documentary series “Black Love.” Amid talk of marriage, children and a meet-cute at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, Turman paused to broaden the conversation with an impassioned plea.
“We’re not angels, we’re not saints — we’re human beings,” he said, speaking about the perception of Black Americans and their relationships. “Let’s not leave out any of the wonderful, wonderful love and the bonds that we, as a people,” have shared, “having gone through an extremely, extremely unique experience in this country.”
“To have us come through it,” he added, “with our loved ones, and what that all entails, is not only important, it’s biblical.”
On Sept. 5, “Black Love” returned to the Oprah Winfrey Network for a fourth season, at a time when Turman’s words and the show’s honest portrayal of Black lives seem even more urgent. But in a year marked by pandemic and protests over racial injustice, the series also offers respite and nuance — an alternative to the relentless imagery of a Black American experience bounded by anguish and rage.
“We know that Black people are happy and married and have been making it work for a long time,” said Tommy Oliver, who created the series with his wife, Codie Elaine Oliver. The two spoke in a Zoom interview last month from their home in Los Angeles.
“We need to see it, and we have not seen it,” Tommy continued. “It’s been relegated to … nowhere on TV for the longest.”
Across three seasons, the “Black Love” formula has remained as simple as it has effective. Each episode features clips of various couples, some famous and some not, at least one of whom (but usually both) is Black. Couples are filmed side-by-side in their own homes, having frank conversations about their relationships and delivering tender moments in which they reminisce, cry, belly-laugh and comfort each other.
Their stories range from goofy to gut-wrenching. Some couples are still in the honeymoon phase. Others have toasted to their Golden anniversary. A few interviews focus on the loving bond between a parent and child.
For viewers feeling the pangs of sheltering in place, isolated from friends and family, there’s a sense of familiarity and comfort in watching these couples discuss sex, parenthood, financial decisions, divorce scares, infidelities and illnesses. But if the show feels familiar, it is also unique.
“Has there been something exactly like this previously?” asked Beretta E. Smith-Shomade, an associate professor at Emory University who studies race and representation in television. “For Black folks, most certainly not,” she said, adding, “I think it’s tapping into a need that we all have for connection, particularly, now.”
OWN pointed to the ratings, noting that the series ranked No. 1 in its Friday time slot last season among African-American women ages 25 to 54. The network president, Tina Perry, called the show “a unicorn in the TV universe,” and said the Olivers capture stories that are typically found only in scripted fare.
Season 4 includes the married TV actors Dulé Hill and Jazmyn Simon; the sports journalist Jemele Hill and her husband, Ian Wallace; and the comedic YouTubers Marcus and Angel Tanksley. A stand-alone special will be devoted to Karega Bailey and Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, two San Francisco Bay Area recording artists who have had to navigate the loss of their newborn daughter. Their story and several others align with this season’s focus on mental health.
“There was a concern for us about whether or not this conversation would be able to hold our story,” Karega said. “It is incredibly difficult to articulate all the nuances of grief. We hope viewers will be able to gather that grief is love after loss.”
Though unscripted, the series sidesteps the explosive antics that typify many reality TV franchises. Viewers won’t see back-stabbing confessional interludes. There’s no expert aiming to “fix” the couples.
“The way we started this, it was meant to be a conversation,” Codie said of the series, which she and Tommy began shooting as an independent feature documentary in 2014, shortly after getting engaged. In part, they sought advice for themselves. They interviewed friends, colleagues and acquaintances, soon amassing dozens of interviews — including with Viola Davis, Sterling K. Brown and their spouses.
“We came to them saying, ‘You’re our example,’” Codie recalled. “‘I want all of the worst, scariest things that can happen in a marriage, but I want to know how you got through them.’”
The concept had originated in Codie’s mind several years before she met Tommy, when she was single and a graduate student in 2008 at the University of Southern California. Bleak headlines at the time, noting that high-achieving Black women were less likely to marry and that marriage among Black people was in decline, left her fearful of her prospects for a lasting relationship.
But as she watched then-Senator Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, ascend into the national spotlight, she regained hope.
“That was the thing that allowed me to understand how important it was that Black love be visible,” she said. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to create a space where Black love lives.”
When Codie met Tommy in 2013, he was working as a film producer, and the two soon started working on “Black Love” together. Ultimately, they decided to pitch it as a series and partnered with OWN, which debuted the show in 2017. (The Olivers own and license the content independently through their entertainment production company, Confluential Content.)
The actress Vanessa Bell Calloway and her husband, Tony Calloway, appeared in the first episode. Without any idea of where the footage might end up, they contributed to their friends’ nascent project, Bell Calloway said, because “I think Black love often gets overlooked.”
“Sometimes,” she continued, “just seeing Black folks being together and loving each other, it gives people inspiration.”
The production is as simple as the formula. During interviews, Codie sits off-camera delivering conversation prompts, and Tommy operates the camera. The two-person setup, taking place in the subjects’ homes, is the key to teasing out stories that feel genuine, they said.
“It’s not about salaciousness,” Tommy added. “It’s not about manipulation.”
Part of what makes the show special is an “aura of authenticity” that sets it apart from other televised fare, said Ann duCille, a professor emerita of English at Wesleyan University. “It’s real people — even though many of them are actors and entertainers — talking candidly about their real lives and loves,” she said.
“I want to believe that the subjects are indeed telling it as it is,” she added, “but here I find I don’t care if I’m being snookered.”
Every groundbreaking effort, however, comes with its own challenges. In her 2018 book, “Technicolored: Reflections on Race in the Time of TV,” duCille wrote about the “burden of representation,” referring to early Black television stars who were not allowed to simply act. They were expected to “carry the whole history of the race on their backs,” she said.
The “Black Love” creators are familiar with that pressure. Some viewers have taken to social media to criticize the show’s relatively low number of interracial and same-sex couples. Others have criticized their inclusion at all.
Last month, many Twitter and YouTube users condemned a minute-long Season 4 teaser that featured mostly fair-skinned Black women paired with darker men. Critics said the video reinforced a painful, centuries-old prejudice that treats darker-skinned women as less desirable. (Tommy acknowledged that they had “screwed up” with the teaser, explaining that a wider range of skin tones would be evident throughout the season, apparent in a longer trailer released several days later.)
The Olivers said they would continue to find and feature Black stories using their many platforms, which, aside from the docu-series, include editorial and video content on their companion website.
But they won’t feel compelled to do it just because their affirmation of Black love dovetails with the current Hollywood trend, in which expressions of support for Black lives can often ring hollow. They’ll continue, Tommy said, because it’s what he and Codie have always done as filmmakers.
“I think the world has become a bit more aligned with where we’ve always been trying to go,” he said. “Now that more people are paying attention to it? Cool. We’ve always known it’s important. The world is just now catching up.”