Every picture tells a story. But not necessarily the right story. Just ask Tracey Edmonds.
Edmonds, the president and CEO of Edmonds Entertainment, producers of the new Showtime series "Soul Food," was frustrated when she first saw a promotional picture for the drama. It was a family portrait of the young attractive African American cast--very sedate, very poised.
"That just isn't what the show is about," Edmonds said. "It needed to be sexy. I wanted something to let our cast be beautiful and hot. That hasn't been seen before on television--African Americans being sexy." Another campaign was developed in hot red, white and pink, showing the smiling cast--but playful and alluring.
The message--at least the one Edmonds, her colleagues on the series and at Showtime hope viewers will get--is that "Soul Food," one of the premium cable channel's new dramas, has more to it than meets the eye.
A continuation of the successful 1997 film, the series weaves its stories around the multi-generational Joseph family, their relationships and loving matriarch Big Mama Joe.
"Soul Food" also joins CBS' "City of Angels" as one of the rare TV dramas to feature a predominantly African American cast. But there are dramas and there are dramas, say those associated with "Soul Food," suggesting the series is unique in its approach and content.
"This show is so important--it's the first of its kind," said Edmonds, who runs Edmonds Entertainment with her husband, singer-songwriter Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. The couple also produced the film.
Edmonds added: "We're hoping that it's seen as groundbreaking television. There are so many aspects of African American life that have never been shown on TV. That's why we wanted to give our cast edge and style, make them sexy."
Along with the new Latino drama "Resurrection Boulevard," which premiered last week with "Soul Food," Showtime is seeking to attract a diverse audience hungry for ethnic-themed dramatic series largely missing on network television.
It was the different landscape "Soul Food" offered that appealed to Showtime President Jerry Offsay, who was a big fan of the film: "Most dramas dealing with African Americans focus on the workplace. But this is about a family. That automatically makes it different."
Also of primary concern to the producers was maintaining thecomedic-dramatic tone of the film, which had been a sleeper hit not only with blacks but also with white audiences. That determination was complicated by the unavailability of most of the original cast, including Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long, Mekhi Phifer and Michael Beach.
"The expectations were so high from everyone on the street who loved the movie," said co-executive producer Felicia D. Henderson, who developed the series for television. "The movie set a certain standard."
Henderson, Edmonds and the other producers are striving to maintain that standard, despite having to compromise. Although "Soul Food" is set in Chicago, the series is filming in Toronto to save costs. The cast is made up of mostly unknowns--the most recognizable member is Vanessa Williams (no relation to Vanessa L. Williams), who had a short stint as the only black resident on "Melrose Place."
The performers are not concerned with comparisons to the original cast. "No two people play Hamlet the same, and we bring our own things to it," said Nicole Ari Parker, who plays uptight attorney Teri Joseph, the role originated by Vanessa L. Williams.
Another departure from the film is its emphasis on sex. Although the movie had its share of steamy love scenes, sex has an even more prominent place in the series, as the producers solidly cling to the Showtime slogan of "No Limits."
In the opening scene of the first episode, Lem (Darrin Dewitt Henson), the ex-con husband of a very pregnant Tracy "Bird" Taylor (Malinda Williams), is seducing her in a bathroom awash with candlelight. The romantic interlude takes several abrupt and very frank turns--from what he wants, to what she doesn't want, to her water breaking, ending it all.
Temperatures also rise during another scene when attorney Teri Joseph begins an unlikely love affair with Damon Carter (Boris Kodjoe), a messenger with a bodybuilder's physique.
Explained Offsay: "These are young, attractive people, with rich, full, vibrant lives. We will not run away from their sexuality. This will be a realistic portrayal of their lives."
Edmonds is pleased with the emphasis on the adult themes, and with the freedom Showtime has provided for her vision. When she first proposed the movie as a series soon after its release, 20th Century Fox, which owned the movie, envisioned turning it into a situation comedy.
"The studio and the network just thought of it as a half-hour," Edmonds said. "That's not what we wanted at all. We would get in the door because of the success of the movie. But then we weren't getting our calls returned. We lost the heat of the movie and had to start from scratch. We were so lucky Showtime believed in us. This gives us more creative freedom and allows us to keep the tone of the movie."
The series is just one piece in the plan the Edmondses are formulating that would see them producing a multitude of TV and film projects featuring diverse casts. Edmonds Entertainment's other projects include a feature film version of the "Josie and the Pussycats" comic book; "Maniac Magee," a TV movie for Nickelodeon based on the children's book; and "The Lamb," which will star Garth Brooks as a fictional singer (spinning off the NBC concert special of last year).
But it's "Soul Food," along with the returning "City of Angels," that they hope will help change the TV industry's reluctance on producing dramatic shows with African Americans.
Said Edmonds: " 'City of Angels' was very important for us, and we watched it very closely. Hopefully our show will also will open the doors for other series of its kind and show to the networks that a black series can have the imprint of quality--that a minority-themed drama can be right at the top level, just like 'The Sopranos.' "
* "Soul Food" can be seen tonight at 10 on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).