Mel Jones, the producer behind Dear White People, Burning Sands and a slew of other projects, has made her directorial debut with Leimert Park. The digital series follows the lives of three Black girlfriends who live together in Leimert Park, an area in Los Angeles brimming with a diverse swatch of Black life.
The online series debuted at Sundance this year in the brand new Indie Episodic program division. The project stars Ashley Blaine Featherson (Hello Cupid, Dear White People) as Mickey, Asia’h Epperson (Greenleaf, American Idol) as Kendra, and Ashli Haynes (Switched at Birth) as Bridget. The trio’s adventures in love and life are the focus of the show, but like other location-specific shows, Leimert Park itself is the unofficial fourth character.
TheGrio chatted with Jones for a behind-the-scenes look at what inspired the show, switching from a produce to director’s chair and the future of online projects in an age when so much focus is on the big and small screens.
TheGrio: How did the Leimert Park series come to be? What sparked the idea?
Mel Jones: I have lived in Leimert Park for the past eight years and I’ve had 12 roommates. I know that’s crazy, right? I have so many stories and for me it was about going from my mid 20s to early 30s. You mature, you figure things out, you learn how to not make foolish decisions. I got married and I had a baby. At some points it was me, my husband, my baby and roommates. I just thought that all of these stories should live somewhere.
TheGrio: What made you decide to turn those experiences into a show?
Mel Jones: I just had my daughter and I had a burst of ideas. When you’re pregnant your whole focus is on that, but once my daughter was born, it was like this huge release of creative energy. It just came to me to do this. Leimert Park is basically the last Black neighborhood left standing in LA that has middle class, upper-middle class, and a real community of independent artists. I just moved back from DC. I’m from Virginia and it was just really welcoming place. I figured it would be good to memorialize it.
TheGrio: In an early scene, Mickey introduces viewers to Leimert Park and she implores them not to tell people about this place because she doesn’t want folks ruining a good thing. In making this series, were you afraid you’d be the reason for a wave of gentrification?
Mel Jones: Oh, it’s already happening. That’s why I said I wanted to memorialize it. You can’t buy a house around here unless you make at least half a million dollars. Change is already here and it’s going forward, but I hope by creating in and around this community, we can mobilize and keep intact what makes this a good place to live.
TheGrio: You mentioned that this series is at least partially based on personal experiences. How was it turning those details over to a writer to flesh out and an actress to embody?
Mel Jones: I met Davita Scarlett at the Los Angeles Film Festival where I used to work. We clicked and we kept in touch. When this project came along, I told her that I didn’t have any money, but that if she wrote this, we would be co-creators and whatever I get, she gets. She put in her experiences and I put in mine and we went from there.
At the time, Davita was working on a lot of projects that didn’t have much to do with Black people, so she was looking for something more in this space. As far as the actors, I knew I would cast Ashley Blaine Featherson to play Mickey, who is basically me. I know her from our time at Howard and of course we worked together on Dear White People.
TheGrio: Sounds like a lot of #BlackGirlMagic went into creating this.
Mel Jones: Absolutely! Every single person who backed Leimert Park was a Black woman. We get a bad rap for not holding each other down, but we do. We hear the negatives, this is a clear example of us working together. Our casting director Kim Coleman is amazing. She’s done a lot of Spike Lee stuff and she’s known for consistently breaking new stars.
TheGrio: You have tons of producer credits under your belt, but Leimert Park is your directorial debut. How was it making that switch?
Mel Jones: It’s been really good. I’ve never directed before and now I can officially call myself a multi-hyphenate. Definitively looking to do more in the future. I was on this as a producer and we were looking for a millennial Black woman director with a comedic sense. That’s a fairly specific ask and the handful of people we had in mind ended up being unavailable because they had other big projects going on. I thought maybe I should do it. I still had to pitch and prove that I could do it, but it ended up working out well.
TheGrio: Congrats on making it to Sundance! What’s next for Leimert Park? Where do you think it will land?
Mel Jones: We have a lot of interest in it. Some want to continue it in short-form digital way and the television side wants to build it out into a longer episode format. I’m excited about all the prospects. Television is the holy grail for everyone, but I created this specifically for the digital space to play and create and discover, so if it remains there, that is more than OK with me.
It’s important for artists to understand that here are avenues you can go on your own without anyone’s permission. You can produce art regardless of a greenlight from someone else.