The OWN reality series Black Love lets people tell the stories of their relationships, which are relationships we don’t typically see on television: marriages between black people. There was a clear desire for those stories: its premiere two years ago was the “most-watched unscripted series debut in OWN history,” the network said. Season three premieres tomorrow (OWN, Saturdays at 9) with four new episodes.
The series was created and is produced by Codie and Tommy Oliver, who are married and have three kids today, but actually started developing the idea when they were still dating.
Codie and Tommy created and own the show and format—which is almost unheard of, because even when producers or production companies create formats and shows, networks end up owning the show and the idea.
The Olivers have used that ownership to create the online community blacklove.com, which says it “aim[s] to be the hub for Black couples and singles looking to build community and conversation around healthy relationships at every stage of life,” and also the Black Love Summit, where those conversations can take place face-to-face.
I interviewed them last year at their home in Los Angeles to find out more about the series. (A note: I was waiting to publish this until season two premiered—and somehow I completely missed season two! The previous 12 episodes are on OWN’s site and on Amazon. )
Black Love began when Codie “had an idea to do something around black love for a while, in one form or another—whether it was a coffee table book or audio conversations or whatever it may be,” Tommy said.
Codie said “two things I found really inspiring were The Black List, the documentary, and 112 Weddings, which was an HBO doc, by Doug Block,” she said. “Both of those were very straightforward: You’re just talking to a person or a couple about a thing, and that was it. There was such a clarity and purity in that, that I definitely wanted to bring to this.”
Codie and Tommy were engaged in 2014, and started filming later that year. The first couple were family friends of Codie’s outside of Detroit, where they were filming a different movie. Later, after filming some interviews closer to home, they took a two-week road trip from New York to Atlanta, filming two or three interviews a day, with each lasting one or two hours.
Black Love is an intimate, close-up series—just a couple sitting on a couch talking through the ups and downs of their relationship—because that’s how it’s filmed.
There’s no crew, just Tommy and Codie. “We are the entire production team,” Tommy said. “The idea is meant to create an intimate environment where it’s just a conversation.”
Codie pointed out that “no one’s really comfortable talking about their marriage to strangers with a camera.”
So they began interviewing people by simply asking couples for advice. As Tommy explained, “You’ve been in this longer than we have: What can you say to help us get to where you are, whether that’s 10 years or 15 years or 50 years? Not that any relationship is the same—helping us understand what you’ve gone through, it helps.”
Framing the conversation that way helps the couples open up, he said. “It doesn’t help anybody to be dishonest; it doesn’t help anybody to leave out the tough details, especially when you’re talking to us.”
Codie asks most of the questions, while Tommy handles cameras, mics, and other technical details.
“We were doing these interviews—or are doing these interviews—as our relationship progresses,” she said. “We started engaged. To a certain extent, I look back at some of those interviews and, it’s like, we didn’t even know what to ask. I thought I knew: I had my questions as a child of divorced parents, and he had his perspective, but we weren’t married. We were just like, What is this thing? It’s really evolved with the relationship. There were certain questions about having kids that we just didn’t even think of until after we did.”
They talked to around 50 couples for the project, thinking it would be a feature documentary film. “We would have left so much footage unexplored, and so many stories that we couldn’t have done anything at all with,” Tommy said. “The more we shot, the more we discovered what this thing was, what it needed to be.”
When they pitched the series to OWN, the network immediately “got it, and also the need for something positive, especially given what was going out politically and everything else. To their credit, they were all over it from the very beginning,” Tommy said.
What Codie and Tommy Oliver have learned from interviewing couples
Episodes of Black Love each have a theme, finding a through line in the stories the across the couples who are featured in that episode (“Picking Your Battles”, “Life After Baby,” “Tripping Over Hurdles,” “In Sickness and In Health”).
Those themes don’t suggest that every couple is identical. “One of the things that’s really important is for us to present diverse takes on all of these things,” Codie said. “The conversations that we have really drive the theme—it’s not like we got saying, Let’s go find people who’ve dealt with this.“
And “nothing feels like the previous couple,” she told me. “Everybody’s circumstances around things are different, and the more we’re able to get that specificity from them, the more interesting the story to someone who’s not going through any of that, and the more helpful it is to someone who is.”
“One of the big takeaways from season one, and just interviewing so many couples, period, was: Couples that stay together, no matter the issue, or issues, stay together because they want to,” Codie said. “That’s not to say that people who get divorced didn’t try, but it takes a lot of will to identify a problem and just sort of move through it.”
“We really do dig deep; no two people are alike, and we know that, and we think that’s an important part of what we want to share with our audience,” she added.
The show has a mix of celebrities and non-celebrities. Its first season had Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, thanks to a chance meeting in a parking lot.
Tommy explained: “I was in a parking lot on Sunset and La Cienega. I saw her and some guy walking and I approached them. Straight up, in the parking lot, never met her a day in my life before that, and I just went up and said hello. Fortunately, we had a lots of people in common: I was writing a movie for Kerry Washington; we also shared an agent, so I wasn’t completely random.”
A few years later, he reached out, and Davis and Tennon agreed to be interviewed for Black Love. Tommy said that was significant: “OWN’s never said this, but I’m pretty certain that having Viola Davis as part season one made a giant difference and was a big part of why they wanted to do the show. And them doing the show opened up the door for a lot more Black Love—specifically, Black Love as a theme, or Black Love as a brand.”
Codie pointed out that Davis and Tennon—and other season-one couples—agreed to talk before the project became a television show. Instead, they said yes because it “seems like an important thing I should be a part of. Not just I want to be on TV, not just sharing their love story to help us, but to help others. They all did that for that reason alone.”
Tommy said that, while “some of the issues are specific to celebrity,” they haven’t noticed any differences in the struggles and successes of married celebrities versus non-celebrities. “It’s the old adage of: We all eat, sleep, shit the same,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how famous you are; you still have to deal with the same issues. You still have to deal with the person next to you in the same way. You don’t get a pass because you’re famous.”
That’s true of the Olivers, too, who were candid in discussing the challenges of living and working together.
“We’re still working on it,” Codie told me. “It is is chal-len-ging—okay? My husband is a very talented, smart, hard producer. That is not always fun to be married to. But it makes for good work.”
She said that, for her, work and home “always flows together,” but “I’ve been trying to make an effort to separate. I think it’s required, but we haven’t found those defined spaces.”
Tommy said, “I do separate them; I separate them pretty easily”
Codie told him, “You separate them within—He can have a conversation with me, and go, that was business and this wasn’t, whereas I am in a place where I’m right now like, We should set a time to talk about these things and a time to cut it off.”
Tommy said that while Codie is struggling with that separation, that “isn’t her problem, but it’s our problem—which is difficult.” In his mind, he added, “We should be able to have a disagreement about business and then be all lovey-dovey two seconds afterwards, which is how I would be.”
“Does that sound realistic?” Codie asked me. (I told her that I’m much more like her, and need time to process/think/freak out.)
Tommy said, “I can understand that intellectually; that does’t mean that the second it’s happening I’m going to think that or get that. It’s a work in progress, and it has gotten better.”
The show is evolving along with their partnership.
What’s changed the most since the early days of production is that “we have the format down, and the way we want to go about it,” Tommy said. “As it evolved, it was very clear what it should be, what’s needed for the series”—and that is just “literally two people on a sofa the entire time. It works well.”
After season one, Black Love did get some criticism, primarily for its lack of same-sex couples. “That was a point of pain for us, because the show’s about black people finding love wherever they find love, and we’re not judging wherever they find love. It’s just really important that we’re really represented,” Tommy said.
Codie added that all “black people feel like and know that we deserve love, and that we can have long-lasting relationships, because in the media and in entertainment, you don’t see that. It was point of pain because people thought we did it on purpose, and we didn’t, at all.”
In fact, they tried to interview same-sex couples for season one. “We actually tried very hard to [film interviews] and include them, and it was really disappointed that we weren’t able to do that,” Tommy said. “Even if our intentions were right, this didn’t go as well we wanted, and so we’re going to do right by it. We’re very, very, very, very strong advocates.”
Codie said the one positive was that, “as much people would reach out and be like, I can’t believe you—we’re black love too, we had a lot of people reach out and say, I can introduce you to some couples.”
Season two—which had eight episodes; OWN split them into two four-episode runs—did feature a lesbian couple, Dr. Jacquelyn “Jai” Pelham and Rebecca Crouch, while season three will have the show’s first gay male couple.
Codie also told me that, after season one, “there was a little bit of pushback about including interracial couples, because the term ‘black love’ traditionally has meant two black people.” But interracial couples are included because “it was super-important to us to show black people finding love whenever and wherever they find it,” she said.
The response, the Olivers told me, has been very strong overall. Codie told me about meeting a woman who told her, “I’m 26 and I’m single, and this show just means so much to me and my friends, and for it to mean as much to her 26-year-old self as it means to my 65-year-old mom is exactly what we wanted to do.”
Black people, Tommy said, “have a complete, warped perspective of what marriage is,” because “there is a giant a void of appropriate representation of black married folks: scripted, unscripted, TV, film, all of it.” The representation that does exist is “so significantly off, it was dangerous.”
While the show exists to represent stories that have been ignored by other media, the themes it explores, and its subjects’ stories, are often universal, Codie said.
“There are universal themes across the show, and that was important to us, too. There are some things that are specific as black people. One of them—which I’m excited that we’re able to touch on—is raising black children in this country. That’s a specific experience that we are able to address head on in our show that you don’t get to do in every show,” she told me. “Yes, there are some things that are specific to black couples, but for the most part, the understanding and intention was: these are universal stories.”
Tommy said said Black Love helps with “the normalizing of marriage”: “We’re not in other people’s marriages. Even some of your closest friends, you don’t necessarily understand, so to realize that what you’re dealing with is typical marital issues? That’s really powerful and really important.”