In the midst of a growing conversation about the current landscape for Black talent in Hollywood, Lifetime’s With This Ring—premiering this Saturday at 8 p.m.— is bringing a dynamic team of Black stars together for a romantic comedy that hopes to captivate all audiences.
From gut-wrenching laughs to heartbreaking sobs, With This Ring is promising to take viewers on an adventure that will cover every end of the emotional spectrum.
It has been roughly 10 years since authors Denene Millner, Angela Burt-Murray, and Mitzi Miller penned “The Vow,” the novel that serves as the inspiration for the made-for-TV film—and the adaptation couldn’t have come at a better time.
Many Black stars and producers of late, including Mekhi Phifer and Russell Simmons, have been voicing their frustrations with an entertainment environment in Hollywood that seems to be turning its back on Black talent and muffling the voices of a community that so heavily consumes mainstream media.
“Our stories aren’t necessarily that important to the mainstream, which is heartbreaking,” With This Ring director Nzingha Stewart told Atlanta Blackstar.
While higher barriers to entry certainly present themselves to Black talent, Stewart challenges other Black directors, producers and actors alike to push for their voices to be heard.
“If the story is valid to you, then it needs to be like Malcolm X—by any means necessary,” she said. “However you choose to make that movie, make that movie.”
With many major Black names in entertainment surfacing in television, some viewers couldn’t help but wonder if the new outlet for Black media was to go through the small screens instead.
While there may be some truth to that idea, industry executives are also pointing at the sheer increase in creativity and quality of television productions.
“It used to be that if you were a really big star you would almost stay away from TV because there was a stigma attached to it,” Stewart explained. “And then you started to have shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ and TV started getting really, really good.”
As the quality of television shows started to increase, it was only natural that made-for-TV films followed suit.
This opened the door for more opportunities for major productions to involve people of color and bring the right talents to small screens in order to have those stories truly come to life.
“We are looking for the right talent to tell the right stories; and in the case of such films as Steel Magnolias, Whitney, The Trip to Bountiful, A Day Late and A Dollar Short, The Gabby Douglas Story and others, we were lucky enough to work with some of the most talented actors in the business,” Senior Vice President of Original Movies for Lifetime, Tanya Lopez, told Atlanta Blackstar. “All talent want to work on good material and television is at an all-time high creatively; and I’m happy to say Lifetime is at the forefront of this movement.”
Lifetime has certainly emerged as a leader in showcasing films that feature predominantly Black casts, which has earned the network major recognition.
“In fact, this year, we’ve received a network record 16 Image Award nominations, more than any other cable network and second only to ABC,” Lopez added.
So while social media is still buzzing with talk of the “whitest” Oscars since the 90s, it seems the television landscape is keeping its doors open to diversity through both television series and made-for-TV films.
Stewart is also encouraging people not to rule the big screens out just yet.
While racial bias is sure to exist in nearly every industry today, Stewart says the landscape for Black talent in Hollywood is still a “hopeful” one and that no set of Oscar nominations should force anyone to think otherwise.
“I don’t think we have to really depend on the Oscars for validation,” Stewart added. “[Ava DuVernay] made a great movie. Who cares if it was recognized by them or not. We don’t need that validation from them. We all know she made a great movie. People know she made a great movie.”
She also pointed to Selma’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture and last year’s landslide of victories for 12 Years a Slave to remind the public that Black films aren’t being completely shut out of Hollywood.
“Black actors should know there is room for them and there will always be room for them,” she added.
As for With This Ring, Stewart hopes the film not only helps bring more diversity to the mainstream media landscape but also reminds people that a “Black film” isn’t just for Black viewers.
With This Ring tells the compelling story of a group of friends who all make a vow to get married within a year after attending their best friend’s wedding. It’s a story that covers the harsh realities of romance, the challenging task of conquering loneliness and living life to the fullest no matter what the current circumstances may be.
“Not every Black woman is going to get married and so many Black women feel like if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be happy my whole life,” said Stewart, a popular music video director who took on the twin tasks of adapting “The Vow” into a screenplay and directing her first major film. “Or I’m gonna wait to take that trip when I get married, or I’m going to wait to get that promotion at work to be happy and we just really want to communicate with this movie, you know, stop it. Stop waiting for when you get the promotion, when you get the job, when you get the man, the money or the house or whatever it is that you think will make your life amazingly different. Please stop waiting and live your life.”
That’s the universal message that Lopez said “all women can relate to.”
For that reason, Stewart hopes women of all backgrounds will watch the film and not count it out simply because the cast may not look like them.
“It has all the components that a solid romantic comedy for people of any color would have in it, but because Black women are the characters, you almost can’t imagine white people watching it,” Stewart said of the way predominantly Black films are perceived. “Even though they would watch whatever other romantic comedy.”
She explained that the same white viewers who love romantic comedies might not give With This Ring a chance because the story follows Black women.
“They will pass the poster for it and just think automatically, ‘That’s not for me,’” she said.
But as Lopez explained, this film is one that will have women of all colors preparing “for a fun night and lots of laughs.”
“Viewers will love these women and they will know them in their own lives,” Lopez added.
With This Ring will premiere on Lifetime on January 24 at 8/7c and stars Regina Hall, Jill Scott and Eve Jeffers Cooper, with appearances by a host of other stars, including Gabrielle Union and pro football Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders.