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In April, when Ashleigh Di Tonto, the senior vp development at Trailblazer Studios, brought networks a pitch for a documentary miniseries on the subject of a 1921 Tulsa race massacre, she was met with indifference.
“No one knew the story other than through Watchmen,” the executive recalls, noting that Damon Lindelof’s HBO series included a depiction of the event — in which white rioters destroyed a wealthy section of the Oklahoma city known as Black Wall Street — in its October premiere. “Now two networks called and want me to repitch it after they passed and said it was too obscure,” marvels Di Tonto.
What changed? Arguably, everything. Since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked Black Lives Matter protests, at least four projects are now in the works aiming to highlight the centennial of the landmark event next year.
LeBron James’ Spring Hill will produce a doc with Bad Rap’s Salima Koroma directing. Dream Hampton, who exec produced Surviving R. Kelly, is planning a miniseries titled Black Wall Street with Cineflix Productions. And Russell Westbrook, another NBA superstar, partnered with production house Blackfin for a docuseries titled Terror in Tulsa: The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street, to be directed by Stanley Nelson, the filmmaker behind Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.
“The times have changed,” says Nelson. “In the last two weeks, the world has changed.”
Nelson touched on the massacre with a 2019 PBS documentary, Boss: The Black Experience in Business. “It was heartbreaking not to be able to spend more time on it,” he says, adding that he jumped at the chance to tackle the subject when approached by Blackfin and Westbrook. The team is now in the final stages of pitching what would be a four-part series to networks and financiers.
While the filmmakers are mum on the details, each is hoping to bridge the past and present, and find resonance. “One of the things I’ve been able to do with my films is make history come into the present,” says Nelson. “We don’t want to ever make a film that you sit back and watch and go, ‘Well that was interesting, let me go eat a hamburger.'”
Meanwhile, Trailblazer’s Di Tonto has secured what she says is an exclusive partnership with Tulsa’s Centennial Committee and Greenwood Cultural Center, a nonprofit preserving the history of Black Wall Street. “We really want to showcase what they are trying to do in 2021,” Di Tonto says, adding that the project hopes to show “the past and present rebuilding and not just make it about the massacre.”
On the scripted side, Cineflix president J.C. Mills said in his June 1 miniseries announcement that Hampton’s “sensitive yet hard-hitting approach will honor the fallen and help heal a wound by shining a light on a story that’s been brushed under the rug for far too long.”
The projects are getting underway as national attention will turn to Tulsa on June 20, when President Trump will hold a campaign rally at the BOK Center amid the ongoing protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
Nelson believes that, while events sparked by police violence this year are terrible, this sweep of history will give the Tulsa projects extra resonance. And, at this stage, there seems to be a sense of friendly competition in the race to make these projects.
Di Tonto adds, “In just a few months, we’re now at multiple projects with huge names, and this may sound trite, but I’m just happy that this is being told.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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