That’s how we meet Dude and Chick, the stars of “The Couple,” the Web series that’s now in development at HBO: Dude skulks away from the din of an engagement party to while away a few minutes in the bathtub, Chick hunts him down, and they share a moment together before they’re interrupted by Lisa, the nosy, slightly unhinged sister of the groom-to-be.
“Hello. Hello,” says Lisa, knocking incessantly and turning the knob of the locked door. “Hello? Who’s in here?” They fall silent and wait her out, partners in escapism, before a moment of intimacy and hushed laughter takes a turn. Chick discovers that Dude brought her to the engagement party of his ex-girlfriend.
On Valentine’s Day.
The situation, the emotions, could be projected onto any couple, but Dude and Chick happen to be black, because they were created by the co-founders of Black & Sexy TV.
Now in its third year of existence on YouTube, Black & Sexy has grown from one or two shows that could maybe be something to a slate of programming that’s not only caught the eye of development executives at HBO, but an agent at United Talent Agency. Black & Sexy was recently signed by UTA, co-founder Numa Perrier (who also plays Chick) revealed exclusively to The Washington Post. UTA is the agency which represents AwesomenessTV, the YouTube network DreamWorks recently purchased for $33 million.
The partnership opens an entirely new set of possibilities for Black & Sexy, because they now have UTA’s knowledge and resources at their disposal, something that could help grow the network’s subscriber base from its current viewership of 79,000 to several times that, and eventually, to several million.
The team of Dennis Dortch (chief creative officer), Brian Ali Harding (creative director), Jeanine Daniels (producing partner), and Perrier (director of programming and development) are the founders of Black & Sexy TV, a YouTube network that’s developed a reputation as an online go-to for quality content about black relationships, done on a tiny, tiny budget. Though Black & Sexy has proven that it doesn’t take much money to make quality television, they’ve also demonstrated that it’s not as easy as it looks. Other black web series can be long on aesthetics, but short on plot, realistic dialogue, or believable acting. Black & Sexy is different.
Because shows with majority black casts tend to get pigeonholed as “black shows,” there’s not many of them, leaving an audience that grew up watching “A Different World” yearning for its return. But “A Different World” first aired in 1987, and much has changed since then, not just in the television landscape, but the world. Rather than picking up where the “The Cosby Show” spin-off left off, Black & Sexy TV is aiming to advance black television by meeting those fans where they are in their lives right now.
Black & Sexy specializes in producing shows that happen to be about black people, but that aren’t consumed with race, which leaves it free to explore other story lines. “Hello Cupid,” one of two Black & Sexy shows with new episodes debuting Friday, is about the conflict, confusion and hilarity that ensues when a woman decides to conduct a small-scale social experiment and switch out her online dating profile picture with that of her roommate’s. With the new picture, she not only lands a date, she turns into a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac.
Black & Sexy shows feature depictions of black romance that are largely missing from modern television and movies even though there’s a huge audience for it, as evidenced by the successes of “Think Like a Man Too” and “Best Man Holiday.” One of the most significant aspects of its programming is the way it chooses to depict black women — and black women of varying shades, hair types, body types and personalities — as desirable. In its universe, black women’s desirability isn’t exceptional. It’s not demanding a reward. It’s just normal, and even other actresses have taken notice.
“As we’ve grown, more and more actresses have reached out, and they — some of them don’t realize it’s ok, we’re black and sexy now; you can let [straight hair] go,” Perrier said. “You don’t have to have long, straight hair to work with us. You can — on ‘RoomieLoverFriends,’ we had long, straight hair — but for the majority, we’re always looking for people who just don’t feel like everybody else … some of these networks are like, ‘No, your hair better be perfectly laid, or you’re not a fierce black woman.’ But for us it’s like, how unique can you be? How natural can you be? How beautiful can you be as you are? It is something important to us.”
For graduates of historically black colleges and universities, the realm of Black & Sexy is reminiscent of four (Or five. Or six. Or eight — let’s be real here) years when you could exist as a black person without anxiety or explanation, free of the various weights and baggage that trail when you live your life within the larger context of whiteness.
“It’s really a form of activism, Perrier said. “To show our intimacy is to show us as human and to show us as real.”
Black & Sexy enjoyed an early signal boost from Issa Rae, creator of “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” when she featured “RoomieLoverFriends” on her YouTube channel. Rae, who is developing a show for HBO with Larry Wilmore (formerly of “The Daily Show”) is something of a king maker in the world of black YouTube. Her endorsements have helped to raise the profiles of shows such as Andrea Lewis’ “Black Actress,” Jahmela Biggs’ “First,” and Tahir Jetter’s “Hard Times.” Rae also played Lisa, the nutty, nosy sister from “The Number” and “The Couple.”
As Black & Sexy’s star continues to rise, one of its concerns is how the network will be able to retain the indie feel that’s so central to its ethos. HBO may prove to be the best vehicle for that. Rae has called the cable network “the closest thing to the Internet.”
“So far, the way that they’re working there is very open and they’re very interested in finding new, fresh, and distinct voices,” Perrier said. “Everything they’re doing is to nurture that with us, so it’s very, so far, very, very close to the way we already work. For us, HBO is a network that we always had in our mind as a network that we’d like to work with, and then they kind of came along out of the blue without us chasing them down, which is great. I think that everything that we anticipated so far with them is what it is; they’ve very open and want a distinct voice to be there. They’re not trying to change that.”
A truer reflection of black people: not ratchet, not super-positive. Just ourselves.
Dortch started the YouTube Channel in 2011, but it comes from a 2008 feature film Dortch directed called “A Good Day to be Black and Sexy,” which he showed at Sundance. The concept of Black & Sexy is at least 10 years old; Dortch and Harding, who attended Loyola Marymount together, started making the film in 2004.
Daniels, Dortch, Harding and Perrier don’t just think of Black & Sexy as a network; they refer to it as a movement. At first their devotion seems to border on cultish obsessiveness; they all have sacrificed and thrown themselves into building this network in ways that sound downright nuts. Dortch and Perrier were willing to walk right up to the brink of financial ruin because they believe so much in what they are trying to accomplish — they were nearly evicted when they stopped paying rent so they could fund their shoots. Running Black & Sexy is a full-time job.
“We just want a truer reflection of ourselves as black people — and Numa says this all the time — a more modern view,” Dortch said. “More honest. It’s not trying to be super-positive and it’s not trying to be ratchet or negative. It’s just trying to be people that we know in ourselves. So the movement, initially, a good day to be black and sexy, just that line, to me was another word for ‘Black is Beautiful,’ just updated and also just a play of some of my memories of my mom in the 70s wearing this ‘Dark and Lovely’ shirt … I was just thinking about being bold and being black and not being ashamed of it, and at the same time, knowing that we are the focus of a lot of things, culture-wise, and how our culture is actually co-opted a lot, and we just wanted to take that back and have some pride in that.”
Because Perrier and Dortch are also a couple — they have a 3-year old daughter together named Rockwelle — their creative footprints can be found throughout Black & Sexy’s content. Rockwelle has already made her acting debut in “RoomieLoverFriends.” Perrier is a visual and installation artist and photographer who cites Octavia Butler and Carrie Mae Weems as her influences.
Scenes from “RoomieLoverFriends” in particular project the quiet simplicity of Weems’s “Kitchen Table Series” while others magnify the sort of Black Power movement sensuality that Dortch finds so appealing.
“It’s also showing that we don’t have to be everything that they think we are, everything that we’re portrayed to be, which I think is definitely portrayed in ‘The Couple,'” Daniels said. “It’s just two people going through the motions of dating and life and they just happen to be black.”
Much of Black & Sexy’s draw lies in the freedom that comes with being untethered to a cable network or a studio looking to appeal to the broadest swath of viewers possible. It is the anti-Tyler Perry, a universe where a woman can discuss and explore her sexuality realistically, without a moralistic hand driving the plot to her downfall or punishment (contrast Black & Sexy’s “The Number” with BET’s “Being Mary Jane”). It’s television that’s freed from the trappings of respectability politics and a stifling imperative to “uplift the race” that follows much of the entertainment that’s aimed at black audiences.
“They created something so powerful that everyone is searching for,” said actress Shayla Hale, who plays Tamiko on “RoomieLoverFriends.” “And they’re in control of everything. And the way they depict African-American people, it’s just regular. And that’s what we need; we just need something regular that we can relate to … what they started was a breath of fresh air.”
It may be in part because of the work of “Black & Sexy” that BET is attempting to widen its reach. BET just ordered a pilot of “Twenties,” the YouTube series created by Lena Waithe, who is also a producer of “Dear White People.” Waithe’s work, as well as Black & Sexy’s, is part of an aesthetic trend that’s grounded in the Internet and now has found a place in shows such as “Broad City,” “Girls” and “Looking.” It resembles life as seen through an Instagram filter.
“That is what we bring to the scene as filmmakers, is the ability to work with zero to very-little budget and make it look like something of quality,” said Harding, who serves as the network’s chief cinematographer. “It’s kind of what I consider our special skill to be, is to shoot with almost no crew and no light. Philosophically, I love natural light, so that works out, but it’s willpower and energy to get this stuff looking nice and it’s the extra touches — making sure the graphics are right at the beginning and end — everybody’s wearing different hats.
“Numa’s doing wardrobe and though we don’t have a set designer, I’m sitting behind the camera going, ‘Numa, what is that chair back there? Does that look right?’ and she’s swapping it out. One of the things I feel very strongly about is that television shows and movies look like television shows and movies because hundreds of people are very well-paid to make them. And if you’re trying to make something look like TV, it’s not necessarily going to come across as true. What we try to do is use what we have to make something as polished and careful as possible to not waste the little money that we have.”
An eye toward the future
The future of Black & Sexy depends on developing a business model that doesn’t involve two of its founders nearly being evicted (they would have had a place to go, but still). Black & Sexy has found success with crowdfunding; before “The Couple” was going to be developed as a television series, the network planned to make a movie, and they surpassed their $25,000 goal. But crowdfunding doesn’t provide a reliable stream of income, and Dortch estimated it actually covered about a third of the network’s budget. The rest comes from Daniels, Dortch, Harding, Perrier and angel investors, people Dortch called “godfathers and godmothers.”
The group isn’t necessarily aiming to become a network that you see when you turn on your cable box. Daniels, Dortch, Harding and Perrier have their eye on a model that has more in common with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or any of the other web-based companies that don’t require a cable subscription to access their original content.
“Black & Sexy stands on its own,” Perrier said. “We’re building to be just as big as any of those networks that are already household names.”
Now it’s even easier than ever for YouTubers to push their content through apps without having to know how to write a line of code. A new mobile app platform called Victorious specializes in turning online media channels into apps for free. The company, co-founded by YouTube’s former head of creator development and management, has already partnered with beauty vlogger Michelle Phan and comedian Ryan Higa.
Building Black & Sexy as an app falls in line with the group’s vision of Black & Sexy as a movement.
“The movement is not just about race,” Perrier said. “It’s about a new era in content and how it’s ingested and how the audience is more in control of what they want to see, regardless of what it’s saying from a racial/political point of view. The Black & Sexy movement is about having this content at your fingertips. There’s no gatekeepers or older methods of figuring out how that gets out. I think we’ve been one of the leaders in this indie realm. There’s independent film and now there’s independent TV.”