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April 11, 2018

Scenes from a Marriage

OWN scores with an unscripted series that spotlights African-American couples.

Ann Farmer
  • Codie Elaine Oliver and Tommy Oliver are the husband-and-wife creators of Black Love.

    Lionel Deluy

Not long after she met her future husband, fellow actor Julius Tennon, Viola Davis sat him down to get something off her chest.

"I said, 'Julius, I have bad credit,'" Davis recalls. Tennon, seated next to her, cracks up as she continues: "He said, 'I knew your black ass had bad credit from the moment I met you. But that's all right. I've got good credit. We can use up mine.'"

Black Love, a docu-series that explores love lives of black married couples, is teeming with such unfettered anecdotes. Premiering last fall on OWN, it returns May 12 for season two.

"I love Viola talking about her credit," says executive producer–director Codie Elaine Oliver. "Because it's such a real part of a relationship. It can be love and butterflies until someone makes it hard for you to buy a house. And then you look at them differently."

Oliver created Black Love with her husband, Tommy Oliver, who also served as executive producer and director of photography. "We thought it was important to talk about what it takes to make a marriage work," she says, "especially within the black community, so we could see people who look like us having these conversations."

They seem to have touched a chord. Black Love debuted with record ratings for an unscripted series on OWN. Season two will offer four episodes and a new group of couples.

The first round featured both non-celebrity and celebrity pairings. All had tied the knot years earlier, "so they had experiences to draw on," Oliver says. The actor couples included Tia Mowry-Hardrict and Cory Hardrict, Sean Patrick Thomas and Aonika Laurent, and Meagan Good and DeVon Franklin, who is a TV producer and author.

Two couples were biracial. "Our show is about black people finding love whenever and wherever they find it," Oliver says. "The show is not specific to being black or being anything other than a husband and a wife. It's really about putting something positive out. The more that people can be honest and transparent, the better we will all be."

The initial four episodes follow a familiar trajectory: the couples describe meeting cute and falling in love. Eventually, though, the blinders come off and they have to face reality.

Neil Brown Jr., an actor on HBO's Insecure, reveals that his philandering almost destroyed his marriage. His wife, Catrina Robinson Brown, nods in agreement. "People see our relationship and they say, 'I want to have what you have, Neil,'" he says. "But if you knew what we had to do to get here, you might be hesitant."

Black Love was triggered a decade ago by reports that suggested black people don't get married or stay married as much as other ethnicities do. "It was kind of damaging to the psyche," Oliver says, "especially to black women like me at the time, [who were] single and wanting to get married."

The project finally lifted off after she met Tommy at the Toronto Film Festival four years ago. He was there promoting his latest film, 1982. Soon after, they began collaborating on Black Love, conducting more than 95 interviews while they got married, had a child and grappled with similar issues. Tommy says he sometimes asks, "What can you share with us so that we can avoid the pitfalls?"

In another clip from the first season, Davis has some sage advice. "One of the things I understand about marriage is that it's the everyday. People don't always marry the everyday," she says, meaning routine chores. She adds, "I remember telling a friend of mine who was about to get married, 'Your marriage doesn't start when you say, "I do." Your marriage starts when you look over at your partner and you want to kill them.'

"And the next minute you say, 'I love them more than anything and I'm sticking with it.'"

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2018

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