Filmmakers and producers Tommy Oliver (1982, A Perfect Guy) and Codie Oliver hadn't yet exchanged vows when they started interviewing long-married African American couples about how they met — and what it takes to go the distance.
The couples they found, some famous, some not, share their stories in Black Love, beginning Tuesday on OWN, but for West Oak Lane's Oliver and his wife, Codie, who married in February 2015, they've already had an impact.
"We started doing this when we were engaged," Tommy Oliver said in a phone interview this month. "We've essentially been shooting these interviews the entirety of our marriage, or our relationship. So … there's no way you can't be affected by what you're taking in. It informs sort of how we operate."
Though he said they don't see others' relationships as a blueprint for their own, "we'll find ourselves referencing couples in conversations, referencing things that they did or stuff that they've figured out, because we've got the benefit at this point of, honestly, hundreds of years of marriage."
The Olivers found their interviewees, most of whom had been together at least 10 years, among their friends and acquaintances in and out of show business, and through the recommendations of those they knew. "The criteria for people to recommend somebody was basically somebody they would vouch for," he said. "It didn't mean that those couples were perfect or that they didn't have any issues, but that they were committed and figured out how to make it work."
Among the more recognizable couples featured are actors Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) and Julius Tennon; actors Tia Mowry-Hardrict (Instant Mom) and Cory Hardrict (American Sniper); actress Meagan Good (Code Black) and author and producer DeVon Franklin; and actor Flex Alexander (One on One) and his recording-artist wife, Shanice.
"We worked really hard in the interview stage, and in putting together the show, to just make everyone feel like just a couple," said Codie Oliver, who directed the series, which her husband produced. "We didn't harp too much on celebrity status, or what does it mean to be in the spotlight and married. … We really tried to tell everyone's love story as honestly as possible."
Sometimes the couples' honesty surprised even them.
"Cory [Hardrict] is a really good friend. He does some crazy [things], like drinking his wife's breast milk. I had no idea," Tommy Oliver said.
He'd also known actor Sean Patrick Thomas, who appears with actress wife Aonika Laurent, and "we'd talked a bit about family stuff," but Oliver said he hadn't been aware of the extent of the couple's earlier struggles with infertility. "As a result, we've become closer."
Famous or not, the couples in the two episodes I've seen — there are four in what the Olivers hope will be only the first season — are talking about things anyone who's been in a long-term relationship should relate to.
It's important to the filmmakers that it's Black Love "because the media and entertainment portray black people as everything but loving husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children," Codie Oliver said.
Those portrayals, along with data she'd seen suggesting African Americans are less likely to marry, or to stay married, "really start to weigh on you, and you start to believe what people tell you about yourself. And so we could talk about the data and analyze the media and tell people that they're wrong, or we could just show loving couples that have brown faces."
She and her future husband met in 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival, where Tommy Oliver was presenting 1982, the film he wrote and directed about a father (Hill Harper) caring for his daughter while dealing with his wife's crack addiction.
"Tommy will tell you that I hit on him, which I guess is true," she said, laughing.
"Oh, come on," her husband said.
"I made sure that he saw me and that we connected and spoke. And I may have given him my card and asked him when he was available," she said. The next week, he went to Los Angeles, "and we hung out every day for a week, until we moved in together" not long afterward.
Fast-forward four years, and they have a 10-month-old son, who makes an appearance, she said, at the end of the season.
And they continue to focus on their own relationship, each citing communication as their biggest challenge as a couple.
"She wants to talk about everything," said Tommy Oliver. "I want to talk about nothing."