For most Black people, everything about our existence is politicized, whether we want it to be or not. Nothing that’s happened in the last eight years is any surprise to any of us.
Leigh Davenport, creator of the STARZ hit Run the World, once hoped not to run the world, but to change it. Maybe she would be a White House or war correspondent, she thought. But she also loved dance, music, and theater. It was a People magazine college internship that taught her she could make an impact, and have integrity, while tackling lighter subjects.
Now, in Davenport’s irresistibly entertaining series, four successful Black women friends toss off witticisms about life and love while wearing sumptuous clothes (or sometimes very few clothes). But always beneath the show’s glittery surface, racial and sexual politics simmer.
Marketing executive Renee, played by Bresha Webb, is “invisible-womaned,” or elbowed out of the way, as she shops in a bodega; Whitney (Amber Stevens West), puts up with a co-worker at her financial firm who suggests she’ll be barefoot and pregnant as soon as she marries; a cyclist hurls the N-word as he rides past Sondi (Corbin Reid, as a Fulbright scholar), and Ella (Andrea Bordeaux, a writer whose publisher has dumped her).
Registering the slur, Sondi and Ella look at each other, laugh, and move on, under the watchful eye of Harlem’s Harriet Tubman Memorial statue. They have better things to dwell on, like world domination.
Davenport grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a doctor and an attorney who expected excellence but encouraged creativity. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked in unscripted television for VH1, TVI, and BET, and as executive director of the hellobeautiful.com website.
Back in 2009, she spent a Harlem evening with girlfriends, who were dishing about how to snag and keep a guy. Steve Harvey’s bestseller, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, was on everyone’s mind, spreading the notion that Black women were doomed to single life unless they took Harvey’s sexist advice.
“I was mad,” Davenport remembers. “I went home with that attitude of, What messages are being reinforced that are shifting our behavior and our language?’
Though she’d never written a script before, she stayed up all night, inspired.
“I wrote my first 30 pages of basically just people talking,” she says. “Back and forth of what I wished our conversations were.”
Then, in 2015, she moved to Los Angeles, where she kept refining her idea
By 2019 everything came together: she was a staff writer on Boomerang (Developed by Lena Waithe & Ben Cory Jones); she adapted Tia Williams’s novel, the Perfect Find (to air on Netflix); STARZ ordered a Run the World pilot when her baby daughter was two months old; and she landed Wendy Williams: The Movie (Teleplay by Leigh Davenport and Scarlett Lacy, Story by Leigh Davenport), about the drama-filled life of the notorious gossip queen.
“When it rained, it monsooned,” says Davenport, who spoke to the Writers Guild of America West website while she awaited an official Run the World pickup. Predictably, STARZ renewed the hit comedy for a second season soon after.
Tell us what you did with those pages you wrote in 2009.
I sent it to a girlfriend whose boyfriend had gone to film school, and was a director. He said, “Well, for you to not know what you’re doing, this is pretty funny. But you have no idea what you’re doing.”
What happened then?
He helped me condense it to seven pages of actual functional script, and we shot a tape. I got my friends to act in it. At the time it was called Single Black Female. It was hilarious. From there, I was like a dog with a bone. I started teaching myself how to write, taking little one-day Gotham writing workshops. I would write on the weekends, and read scripts. It was really this seed that kept making me water it. I kept thinking someone else was going to do it. Because it needed to be done, and it felt just like, why hasn't this show been made? And every time something would come out, it wasn't the show, it wasn’t what I wanted. So I was like, “Well, I guess I'll keep going.” It haunted me until I ended up quitting my job [at hellobeautiful.com] and moving to L.A.
What was your first job here?
I was pretty highly employable, and I knew that trap of going right back into another gig, doing what I had been doing. Making good money and living comfortably would have defeated the point. It would have taken over. I had a [multimedia] job that allowed me to freelance and work from home primarily, and paid me enough money to take care of my rent, eat Trader Joe’s. I was pretty broke for a while, until things started moving. I guess the first real job was staffing on Boomerang.
So how did Run the World end up at STARZ?
I remember getting a draft finally where I was like, “I think I figured out all the pieces. I think this one’s good.” One of the girls who was in that very first tape, Single Black Female, Kalia Booker, had moved from New York to L.A. and become a development exec at Universal Content Productions [Booker is now at HBO]. She was like, “Hey, whatever happened to that thing you were working on?” She read it, passed it along to her team, and they called me in and optioned it.
Wow! Then what?
Around the exact same time, I had gone to a small birthday gathering with another wonderful woman from my Hello Beautiful days, who introduced me to Daria Overby [STARZ executive director, creative diversity]. I had written the pilot and two subsequent scripts. She read all three, and she’s like, “I think this is good. I’ve got to get someone to read it.” Daria basically then went on this crusade to get one of the executives to pay attention, and that was eventually Susan Lewis [STARZ senior VP, original programming, now with ABC Signature]. She said, “All these years I’ve been looking for a Black Sex And the City, and when I read this, I called my friends, and I told them I found it.”
How did the show evolve?
As I grew, the girls grew. That first 30 pages was a group of 25-year-old girls. The show that we’re watching now is 31-year-old ladies. When I made my full-time transition into L.A., I was 33. But it was always wanting to be able to write a little from the rearview mirror, but not too distant. So their maturity is probably the biggest thing. It’s not as silly and trivial as when you’re in your mid-20s.
A handful of characters, Black and white, are insufferable: a Black female intellectual accuses Sondi of “fucking up” because she’s in a relationship with her thesis adviser; a white ballet school administrator assumes Sondi’s underprivileged because she’s Black. Is it fun to skewer the white people, considering all the negative depictions of Black people over the years?
It’s not really a response to anything, so much as those things occur in our lives all the time. It’s not like it stops our day or shuts down life, but these types of things happen, and happen frequently to us. Without having to spend an episode having conversations about it, just depict them as they occur, and keep it moving.
The world has changed since 2009 when you started writing this.
Yes. George Floyd happened while we were writing.
But Obama was president when you first started writing. Everything was hopeful, and then went to hell. No wonder the show is political.
For most Black people, everything about our existence is politicized, whether we want it to be or not. Nothing that’s happened in the last eight years is any surprise to any of us. In terms of the political undertones of the show, when I first started writing, our joke was, “Oh my gosh, these idiots keep saying that we’re in post-racial America. Just wait.” It was a big joke to us, a big laugh: “Ha, ha, ha. There’s a Black man in the White House, and so you guys are saying we’re post-racial? Please.” From being there in 2008 to where we are now, it's like, “See? We told you.” We’re all rolling our eyes.
Yet the show is so funny.
That’s what’s fun about doing this as a comedy. Given brunch, amongst my friends, we will probably talk about very, very intellectual, political, racial ideas, and we’re also going to talk about our hair color and our lipstick, and what products we use, and what a Real Housewife did. And that’s what the show should feel like, because that’s what our lives are like. It’s all of those things, all of the time, and then we live and prosper, and find our joy in spite, and despite, all of it.
The show is extremely sexy: steamy sex, sweet sex, funny sex. In a wonderful scene Whitney says she gets distracted watching Black porn, wondering if there’s a pay disparity, and whether the women can choose what they do. I actually wondered about the actresses here. Obviously, your show isn’t porn, but it is cable graphic.
Everyone that was cast had the benefit of reading both the pilot and Episode 2. Tonally, there’s a huge range of things that happen between those two episodes, so they all knew what they were getting into. We had real, honest conversations: “Look, this is STARZ. It is pay cable. There will be sex. But we won’t be putting sex in just for it to be there. It will always come from story. It will always be respectful. You have full control over what you’re willing to do and not do, and this is coming from the woman’s gaze and a female lens. And if you trust us, we’ll make sure that you’re good and taken care of.” We put a lot of energy into upholding that. Our intimacy coordinator is incredible.
What were the most challenging writing aspects, once you were picked up?
Making sure that the girls always felt authentically motivated. There were times where we would have conversations at the studio, and the executives loved the girls so much they almost wanted them precious, like they couldn’t make bad decisions, or say a mean thing. And I’m like, “They can’t be that. They have to be flawed, and they have to sometimes be snappy, or mean, or rude. We have to make sure that we don't love them so much that we make them unreal humans.” I was surprised that I was far less precious with them than the studio or the network.
Your showrunner and executive producer is the legendary Yvette Lee Bowser, the first Black woman to create a TV series, Living Single. How do you work together?
I call us the Season One Two-Headed Monster, just really looking at everything together, tiny details. Yvette’s incredibly detail-oriented, to the most granular thing. She always says, “Make sure your choices are unassailable. Think it through.” Tough bar, but if we challenge the writing, if we challenge the decision, if we’ve already had the conversation, then when we get the note, we already know, right? Do that work ahead so that you’re ready to stand on where you’ve landed, and creatively not have that flustered feeling if someone's challenging you, because you've made sure that you're on top, and you’ve already thought through that point, and had those counter-arguments. That’s a really awesome thing to learn in the first season, as a new creator.
How do you write? Do you outline?
I hate outlines for half-hours. I love outlines for features. But I find that the work you do, I could have just written the whole script in the time I spend finagling a seven, 10-page outline. I’m a vomit writer. I do scratch pad, “This is going to happen, this is going to happen,” kind of a step outline. And then I just pour a draft out, usually in a day or two. And then I go back into that draft and really do it. Once I have a clear idea, the ABC, XYZ of it, I just can throw it out there.
What have you learned about writing by working on the entire season?
I learned so much about the characters really becoming their own beings. Conceptually, when you’re writing, they’re part of you, because they’re coming from your voice in your head. There’s so much more than what you think, and what’s on the page. It’s what the actor brings, it’s what the course of the season brings. I love the part where the characters start making their own choices, where I’m not choosing for them, they’re telling me what they would do.
Are you shocked to have discovered this skill and imagination?
Honestly, it’s shocking to me still that I never thought this was what I was going to do, and that it’s turned out to be what I love so much. And now I have such huge aspirations. I want to direct. I have all kinds of stories that I want to tell. But I just marvel. I know people who are like, “I knew I was going to want to work in TV,” “I knew I was going to be a movie writer.” It's crazy, because this surprised me.
© 2021 Writers Guild of America West