Karyn Parsons became famous for her role as Hilary Banks in the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but today the actress has turned her attention to producing films that teach African-American history through her production company, Sweet Blackberry.
The production company is primarily a small operation that is based mostly out of her home in Brooklyn.
“I wanted to do something that was engaging and pulled you in, in a way that kids know fairy tales…. I knew Little Red Riding Hood so well, but wouldn’t it be great if it was a story about a real person? I hoped that my own children [wouldn’t] have to wait until they were older to be exposed to African-American and African history and culture,” Parsons says in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.
Parsons’ production company started in the early 2000s and began to churn out animated films about Black history in 2005. In her interview with the CSM, Parsons reveals that she was inspired to make her production company after the birth of her first child.
The Journey of Henry “Box” Brown was released in February of that year. Henry “Box” Brown was an enslaved man who concocted a plan to escape slavery by shipping himself in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia.
The film was narrated by Emmy award-winning actress Alfre Woodard and garnered the company critical acclaim.
Sweet Blackberry went on to recruit actress and entertainer Queen Latifah to narrate Garrett’s Gift, which was released in 2007. This film focused on the story of gas mask and traffic light inventor Garrett Morgan as a young child.
Both films were featured on HBO and HBO Family as part of their children’s programming.
“My husband knows so much about his history, about his Russian background,” Parsons says of Alexandre Rockwell, who is an independent filmmaker. “And he feels empowered by the accomplishments of his ancestors. He knows so much about who they were and what they did, and he carries that with him. And for a lot of Black people, that doesn’t exist.”
Parsons intends to change that with her work. Her most recent project, Dancing in the Light, tells the story of ballerina Janet Collins breaking down racial boundaries at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera 60 years ago. This film narrated by comedian Chris Rock, explores Collins’ journey to becoming the prima ballerina of the opera house.
All three animated films are now available on Netflix. For more about Parsons’ company visit Sweetblackberry.org.