By Veronica A. Davis
Contributing Entertainment Writer
New Journal and Guide
Los Angeles, CA
After the first episode of Greenleaf, viewers were left with their mouths hanging open. In the first 35 minutes viewers were meeting characters who all clearly had secrets. What would keep us all coming back for more was the fact that we were confronted with statutory rape, incest, youth prescription drug abuse, police shooting and this is the short list. Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to keep viewers watching and veteran networks firing whoever let the former ABC Lost writer, Craig Wright slip through their fingers. This show is truly where Blackish ends and reality of the black mega church family begins.
We are at the end of the season and 2.5+ million viewers have tuned in every Wednesday to get a glimpse inside the lives of the fictitious Greenleaf family. According to the statistics from OWN the series has maintained a number one position in every category from primetime slot to the number of viewership.
Why is it a standout? This series gives viewers the most accurate glimpse of what actually happens behind the facade of mega churches. After learning that the Creator/Executive Producer, Craig Wright is not African American one can only ask, ‘how did he manage to write an entire script on an African American family and be on point?’ Each episode is filled with beautiful and lavish sets that match the characters so well. Who are the master minds of this breakout hit show?
We are all familiar with Oprah and her climb to success in the broadcasting industry. In 2011 Winfrey débuted the Oprah Winfrey Network as a joint venture with Discovery
Communications replacing the Discovery Health Channel. The network premièred in over 80 million plus homes. Her channel began with a variety of shows, realty and news but it was collaboration with Tyler Perry that took the network to new heights. In 2012, Perry introduced prime time viewers to The Haves and the Have Nots, an evening soap opera. Since then she has taken television and ethnic actors in a totally different direction from their comfort zones.
In the video, Inside Greenleaf, produced by OWN, Oprah shared why she developed this groundbreaking series.
“I wanted to tell stories where we were normal people doing normal everyday things. In such a way that other people in other cultures, in other places, in the United States could see themselves. Could relate to those stories and appreciate those stories. Literally we would reach a moment when the storytelling we be judged by is the content of its character. Just as Martin Luther King had wished, I dreamed that the storytelling would not be judged by the color of people’s skin but by the content of their characters.”
She continued to share with viewers what excited her most about the process of bring the series to life. “One of the most exciting things about this process for me has been being able to work behind the scenes. I wasn’t aware how much fun everyone is having behind the camera, really a lot of fun back there. I have really enjoyed the process for searching for the right person for each of these roles. Because one of the things that I have seen happen over and over again in television is that people put people together that couldn’t come from the same families. So it was very important for me that it actually look like a family. The family has to gel, not only the way it looks, but in their emotional tenacity.” During the interview Oprah revealed to viewers something that was expected but long overdue. She said, “It is important for me that not only the cast be diverse, but that there be major diversity behind the camera as well, so that people have a chance to rise.”
To achieve this level of television it would require a screen writer with a diverse ground breaking background; enter Mr. Craig Wright. Readers may recall Mr. Wright as the lead writer for ABC breakout hit show Lost. His writing earned him an Emmy nomination for “Twilight” in the Showtime hit series, Six Feet Under. His writing talents are not limited to drama. In 2014 he was the screenwriter for the children’s movie Mr. Peabody & Sherman. After the first show many questions began with how the project came about. All of the shows that Mr. Wright is most notable have centered on non-ethnic cast members; how is he able to write a vivid script on African Americans?
In an interview with Mr. Wright he was asked how the story came about. “Greenleaf never would have happened if Oprah and I hadn’t met during the development of her documentary series Belief,” he said. “She invited me in to see a cut of it and it was great! Since I was that rare bird, a TV writer and producer with a background in the ministry. After the screening, we started talking about her desire to do a show about the black church and the conversation just kept on growing from there.”
He continued by saying, “Ever since that first conversation with Oprah, I’ve viewed my role in this as a learner, and it’s been good for the show. In working with Oprah, her team, and our studio partners at Lionsgate, we assembled a great staff of mostly African American writers, all of whom had some history in the black church. If the show seems to be “on point” about the black experience, or more specifically the black church experience, that’s because someone on our team brought that truth, their truth, to the table. I’m just a guy who happened to have made a few TV shows, who’s proud to be one of the many voices making Greenleaf work.”
In order to know what impact Greenleaf was having on the African American churches, it is necessary to visit the churches. It is pretty clear that some of the churches that I have visited have shown a 360 degree turn according to congregants interviewed. One pastor even addressed statutory rape as he was speaking candidly to the congregation. When asked how he feels about effecting change Mr. Wright responded, “That’s tremendous news. I hope Greenleaf is a small part of what’s making that happen.”
When considering the look of the show Oprah said, “I am most excited for people to see this family, the mansion, the space, the world that we have created for the first time.” Oprah admits in an interview with ABC News that throughout the process “we don’t all agree all the time” and that there has been heated discussion with Wright over the vision of the show. However, every African American knows that all the greatest dishes require fire, so why should it be different for television? In looking at the lifestyles of the Greenleaf family, an “adequate” house would not do. And she was right. No family of that caliber would want a mediocre home. To style the set, a mediocre set designer would not do! A project of this magnitude required the styling of Bruton Jones, Production Designer.
Mr. Jones shared in an interview: “I don’t look at myself as being very special. I look at myself as being humble and blessed for being able to do a job that I’m very passionate about. Being able to make art that triggers an emotion for the viewer is incredibly rewarding. I get to create a character from the sets, they breathe, they trigger emotions and memories, and help put the cast as well as the viewer in a world, scene or space that makes them feel ‘at home’ or convinced of the world in which they play their part.” In a way I sort of create a 3rd or 4th dimensional art in hopes that you will remember what that space supposed to be.”
“What we are trying to do is create a world that we believe actually exists. And a lot of that I actually pulled from Bishops and Preachers that exists at this level, in order to create this story that is believable. I did a lot of research, spoke to a lot of people and through all those different experiences, I was able to come up with a visual narrative that I felt spoke to all of those experiences I had sourced from.”
Bruton Jones shared that to make the story believable he thought in terms of how the couple would have traveled to different locations and collected items to decorate their offices. He used books and social media to visualize how people transitioned their furnishings through economic growth. “When it comes to money, it doesn’t matter if people are millionaires or billionaires, there is a certain image they want to portray to reflect where they are in life. That is what we wanted to present, that sort of artificial historical presence that people tend to think is what they should do in order to present a sense of money and wealth.”
“In order for me to execute this, I needed the support of Clement Virgo. I explained that the congregants are looking at the campus and they know their pastors are not driving around in Smart Cars or Hybrids.” When asked who Clement Virgo was, Jones responded, “He’s one of the producers and directors of the show, so he is very important. In television you have the show runner and the producer; these are the people who are responsible for bringing it to life. They hire the people to help bring it to life, but these are the people who have an idea of what it is supposed to be like. You have Oprah who has her idea, you have Craig who has his idea, and someone has to bring it all together; and that is Clement. Initially it’s just words on a page which the director brings it to life and then the entire process becomes real. . In order to flush it out the Director works closely with the Designer and the Director of Photography.
Though Clement Virgo is known as a filmmaker, on Greenleaf he serves as the executive producer and director. He is most known by readers for his recent adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s bestselling novel The Book of Negroes which aired in January 2015 with a record breaking 1.7 million Canadian viewers and the following month with landmark ratings for BET. It seems as though he is the Midas of the 21st century because everything he has touched has turned to platinum ratings and it doesn’t seem to be any different for Greenleaf.
In a recent interview with Lamman Rucker he shared Virgo’s talents in bringing the explosive family dinner scene in episode one to life. “A lot of people don’t know that it was the first day, the first big scene that we did and a lot of us didn’t know each other at all. We had never worked together and we were supposed to do a scene that would summarize the last 30 years of our lives together, all of a sudden.” Under these uncertain conditions Clement’s direction made that scene the most memorable dinner scenes in African American television history.
Our Facebook question revolves around Home Goods, who has definitely made its presence known during the airing of the series. “Why Home Goods? They seem so five and dime in my area. Why not a higher end store?”
Bruton Jones shares with us this very ironic answer to this marketing venture. He said: “Here’s how it happened. We have a certain budget and I had to create that look within that budget. I gave my decorator Sarah Carter the concept that I was hoping for. Utilizing various avenues inspiration, she was able to source products that match. Because I pushed so hard for specific looks, Home Goods ended up having a majority of what I was asking for, in fact, out of all the stores we usually go to, we found the best options there.
“Home Goods has a lot of great budget-friendly options that look high-end, so we shopped there pretty extensively. Towards the end of the show [studio executives] informed us that we were going to be associated with Home Goods and asked if we had been using anything from the store. We said, ‘Oh yes!!’ laughter soon follows with his answer; ‘Yea you can say we got a lot of things at Home Goods.’ These opportunities happen for a reason and it was just meant to be that way. Designing is like that and hunting for the right look is part of the fun for the decorator. In this case, the stars aligned at Home Goods, not because of the connection but because it worked for our needs”