Creators of OWN’s groundbreaking docu-series Black Love, Codie and Tommy Oliver discuss entrepreneur
Director and producer Codie Oliver alongside her husband Tommy, a filmmaker and cinematographer in his own right, developed, created, and independently financed Black Love, the hit docu-series on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Black Love highlights couples in the black community, each sharing about the intricacies of love and marriage. The show has featured renowned celebrity couples including Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, Tia Mowry-Hardrict and Cory Hardrict, and Meagan Good and DeVon Franklin.
The idea for Black Love mushroomed in 2008, when Codie became frustrated with the narrative about Black women and marriage. Subsequently, she met Tommy, and they set out to produce Black Love as a documentary. However, after shooting over 50 interviews, they decided to produce a docu-series to provide more in-depth stories.
This power couple is championing Black love but behind the show, they are a real-life example, balancing a family and business. The duo hosted their third Black Love Summit in November 2020, where Black singles and couples gathered to experience “transparent conversations about love, partnership, and community.”
We sat down with Tommy and Codie to discuss entrepreneurship, how the Black Love docu-series started, and their advice for couples in business together.
VIP: How did you come up with the idea for the Black Love docu-series?
CODIE: I initially had the idea for Black Love as a single woman in graduate school. There was a narrative about black marriage crisis in America. Outlets reported that black couples weren’t getting married or staying married as long as other ethnicities, and that black women were least desirable and were the most alone. On top of that black women are often told the more degrees they have, the less likely it is that they will get married. Hearing that portrayal of black men and women time and time again was sad and depressing for me and my friends. I knew that narrative was false, but if you’re not careful, you can internalize that type of negativity and believe fiction to be true.
Successful marriage among black couples existed, but the stories weren’t easily accessible. Our people didn't see positive examples with couples who looked like them in relationships on film and television. It was then that my vision for Black Love evolved.
VIP: You were engaged in 2014 when you began filming Black Love. Walk us through the process of coming together to work on this project.
CODIE: I filmed several interviews while doing PR full time for Canon Cinema Cameras. Tommy and I met at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, when he was a full-time filmmaker. Within weeks of dating, I told him about my idea for the Black Love documentary and he wanted to start right away. Canon agreed to loan us film equipment and we immediately began shooting couples.
TOMMY: There was so much about love and being in a relationship that I didn’t know. I didn’t grow up seeing longstanding or healthy marriages, so this project was a way for me to absorb information from couples who were trying to do it the right way. I wanted to be a good husband, and this was an opportunity to learn what I could do to make sure Codie and I have a successful marriage.
VIP: What was the process to find couples to interview?
CODIE: Over the years, I curated a list of couples I wanted to interview for this project. It included politicians, celebrities, and athletes, as well as the parents and grandparents of our friends. I wanted to have a mix of famous and non-famous people, so we started with couples we knew. We contacted our friends, Tia Mowry and Cory Hardrict, and reached out to couples we networked with years prior. Then, acquaintances and friends we interviewed began recommending other couples for the project. It was that simple, but it was several years in the making. I had a clear vision about what I wanted Black Love to be and what sharing it could mean for our community.
VIP: In discussing marriages, it’s easier to talk about the happy times, but I’m sure you also wanted couples to talk about their struggles and how they overcame them. Let’s discuss more about that aspect of the show.
CODIE: Discussing how marriages survive trying times was just as important as seeing representation of happy black couples in entertainment and the media. Highlighting relationships that have been tested, and spouses who have struggled to grow stronger as a unit really mattered to me. We stripped it down and simply had a husband and a wife talking about their relationship. The stories are authentic and relatable because they’re all couples who work together to make their marriages work.
TOMMY: In highlighting these marriages not only were we inspired, but we were also learning what it took to get to where they were. Every marriage is different, but I learned no love story is as linear as it seems from the outside. Successful relationships take work, there is no shortcut. These couples have been married for years and have seen the best and worst parts of each other. Still, they’ve chosen to be together.
VIP: What do you hope audiences will get out of watching the show?
CODIE: We wanted to provide hope. Successful black marriages do go the distance. But just like any other relationship, black marriage isn’t without its challenges. I want audiences to watch the series and think, “Marriage is a lot of work but if they can do it, so can I.”
This project is so special because it shows raw conversation between a married couple that usually happens behind closed doors. Lack of transparency grossly simplifies the realities of marriage. You see all of the good and none of the bad. What we did in creating Black Love years ago was something a lot of other projects have started doing now, which is, being transparent, having real conversations, and normalizing adversities in marriage. We are far more open than any preceding generation because we see that sharing our experiences, perspectives, and moments of growth provide encouragement to others who may be struggling.
VIP: Let’s talk about entrepreneurship. How did you take the leap?
CODIE: I’m a product of entrepreneurs. My dad was a doctor with his own practice and my mom was a lawyer with her own practice. Watching my parents run their companies I thought, “I could do that,” but I was fearful of being self-employed and not having a consistent salary or healthcare. Having Tommy as a partner gave me confidence because we were in it together. He had just produced The Perfect Guy with Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy, and Morris Chestnut; and when I left my job at Canon, we were preparing to produce Destined, starring Cory Hardrict. Making that leap to entrepreneurship was scary but having a partner made it a lot easier.
VIP: For entrepreneurs in your type of business, having creative control is key. Share about the value in that as you partnered with other entities.
CODIE: We launched BlackLove.com and expanded the discussions around love past romance. Keeping ownership allowed us to exploit the rights in perpetuity. Throughout this process, we learned so much about entrepreneurship, betting on ourselves, money management, and creating multiple streams of income from one project. There are many ways for entrepreneurs to establish continuous revenue and build their brands, they just have to research and figure out what works for their company. Successful entrepreneurs are forever learning and figuring out ways to be better. It’s an ongoing process.
VIP: How important was it for you to partner with the Oprah Winfrey Network?
OWN was my ideal partner from the beginning. I have always identified with Oprah and her brand. Not just because she’s an extraordinary businesswoman, but Oprah has established her brand and platform on humanity and love, two things I also associate myself with. OWN is very much synonymous with Oprah and what she stands for.
I knew our show could transcend demographics and generations, just as Oprah has been able to do throughout her career. Creative Artists Agency sent our pitch packet to various networks and OWN was one of the outlets that was interested, which made everything that much sweeter.
VIP: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who are a couple?
CODIE: Working together will blur business and personal times, but you have to make the effort to establish boundaries. Designate time and place for business and personal conversations. Listening to your partner, not just hearing them while you wait to speak, is important if you want to have a successful collaboration. Also, respect each other’s ideas and play to one another’s strengths.
We’ve been doing this for a while, but we’re still learning how to work with each other. I am unlike any business associate he’s ever had because we’re in a marriage. When work is done for the day, he’s still my husband so we have to prioritize each other’s peace.
TOMMY: I often say, “Luck is the meeting of preparation and opportunity.” Codie and I prepared for this opportunity in every way we could control. Most people don’t understand how much work and personal accountability it takes to successfully run a company. The amount of dedication, work ethic, and preparation needed is often overwhelming because aspiring business owners and entrepreneurs haven’t prepared for it. We all have high aspirations, but it takes more than that. You have to put in the time, learn as much as you can, have open communication with your partner, and be willing to go beyond what you thought you had to do to prepare for an opportunity.
Stream full episodes of Black Love seasons 1-4 on Oprah.com and Amazon Prime. To watch outtakes or learn more about the couples who were interviewed, visit BlackLove.com. On Instagram, follow Codie @codieco, Tommy @producertommy, and Black Love @blacklove.