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Embracing Diversity

5 Dec, 2011 By: Ashley Ratcliff

eOne's Allen Blackwell

eOne touts contemporary black history line-up

While Black History Month may conjure up memories of the great freedom fighters and prominent civil rights leaders of bygone eras, there is much more to celebrate when it comes to the cultural commemoration in February.

Allen Blackwell, VP of Entertainment One’s urban film and comedy programming, said black history should move toward black themes — what African-Americans have stood for in the United States.

“African-American stories are American stories, whether it be Knocked Up or Best Man, whether it be Love Jones or When Harry Met Sally,” he said. “Those are the same stories written from our perspective.”

“To me, it’s important to show not just what might have happened historically, but also, history is a day and a time,” Blackwell added. “I like to talk about the things that are meaningful now: romance, couples, struggle, heartache. ‘The Jeffersons’ is just as much a reality as ‘Good Times’ is today because of the recession, as is Boomerang.”

African-Americans’ experiences are very diverse, and films should showcase that diversity, Blackwell said.

“Are we going hiking in the forest? No, we generally don’t do that … but we have get-togethers, we play Spades, we have dinner parties and we talk,” Blackwell said. “When I look at Love Jones, that’s Boomerang or Strictly Business, if you will. Those romantic comedies all speak to what we go through as young African-Americans in this country. Many of us went to college. Many of us are doing OK. We have wives; we have kids. Are We There Yet? — those are real stories.”

eOne is releasing a slate of urban-themed films in time for Black History Month. They include Cheaper to Keep Her (DVD $19.98), bowing Dec. 6; Church Girl (DVD $14.98), due Jan. 31 (order date Jan. 3); and The Marriage Chronicles (DVD $19.98), streeting Feb. 14 (order date Jan. 17).

Cheaper to Keep Her, starring Vivica A. Fox and Brian McKnight, is a stage play that focuses on a married couple ready to divorce. It grossed $10 million on the road.

Another successful stage play, Church Girl centers on a pastor’s daughter who struggles with her faith. The $4 million-earning drama stars Robin Givens, A’ngela Winbush and Karen Clark Sheard.

The Marriage Chronicles, from Vendetta Films, features Fox, Jazsmin Lewis, Mel Jackson and Darren Dewitt Henson. It paints a picture of couples trying to stay together and building strong familial foundations.

“I think where these films tie in [to Black History Month] is showing our diversity, showing our strengths and our weaknesses, and showing the evolution of us,” Blackwell said. “I think that we have evolved to be very successful in many ways, and we still have, 200 to 300 years to make up on lost time.”

To improve the representation of the African-American experience and bring urban entertainment to the marketplace, eOne has made it a point to focus on its urban and comedy initiative, and has tapped industry veteran Blackwell to do so. Blackwell, along with his colleague, David Kimbrough, previously worked at UrbanWorks Entertainment and Image Entertainment.

“eOne was never in [the urban] business … but, due to our pedigree, they thought we could really exploit the gap in entertainment for African-Americans,” Blackwell said.

That gap exists, Blackwell said, because the film studios don’t widely produce many films for African-Americans.

“But there are millions of African-Americans in this country, and they want content that reflects their experiences, culture, values and appearance,” he said.

According to Blackwell, eOne has made a multimillion-dollar commitment to acquire, produce and finance independent features and limited-theatrical features, and to produce stand-up specials for broadcast. The distributor’s partners include BET, Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime and TV One.

“The urban video business is robust, and there’s not enough content for the market. So if you make positive entertainment, romantic comedies [or] faith-based programming, you’re going to have a great opportunity to sell to broadcast and create a customer base that will be loyal to you.”

eOne recently signed a multipicture deal with Cheaper to Keep Her playwright Je’Caryous Johnson for four stage plays and two feature films, and is working on developing a TV series from some of his plays. The distributor also has inked a six-film deal with New Kingdom Films, which currently is producing a romantic comedy with Tichina Arnold (“Martin,” “Everybody Hates Chris”) titled The Great Divide.

“Stage plays and comedy are some growth genres in an area where entertainment is going downwards on DVD,” Blackwell said. “People are still going out to see the stage plays, and they want to collect these things. … It’s all because people want some entertainment during these difficult times, and stage plays are a bit of an escape.”

“It touches on all the subjects that are going on in the community,” he added.

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