Hollywood’s DEI efforts have been slow-moving, like molasses. But for Kevin Hart’s Hartbeat, they’re all about talking the talk and walking the walk. In collaboration with Sundance Institute and Chase Sapphire, Hartbeat’s Women Write Now fellowship is designed to champion the next generation of Black women in comedy through mentorship, advocacy, production, and exhibition. Hartbeat CEO Thai Randolph and EVP & Head of Film Candice Wilson Cherry co-founded the program.
“Black women are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs in the US and one of the fastest-growing segments of advanced degree holders. We are one of the most over-mentored, under-sponsored groups. Even on the executive side, there [are] so many systemic challenges and barriers, and I want to make it easier for folks than it has been for me,” Randolph told Reckon at the Sundance Film Festival last month.
Randolph hopes the spirit of Hartebeat’s Women Write Now is contagious and more industry folks join the movement.
Now in its second year, the Women Write Now fellowship brought in three emerging writers, Mayanna Berrin, Kianna Butler Jabangwe, and Danielle Solomon, to develop and produce short comedic scripts under the guidance of some of the most influential Black women in comedy. The resulting projects were produced by Hartbeat studios, where fellows served as creative producers on their projects, working alongside guest directors Nicole Byer, Tika Sumpter, and Logan Browning.
“It was [essential] that this program created community and served as a launching pad for these incredible writers and directors. Black women are [a tiny] segment of the showrunner population. Then you look at the pipeline for mentorship and nurturing to get those next positions; it’s even smaller. So, our goal and hope are that this serves as an actionable course to get people working and have sustainable careers that change the [entertainment] industry,” Wilson Cherry tells Reckon.
After several months of development, the three short films premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 22 at the Holiday Village Cinema in Park City, Utah.
The premiere opened with Hey Boo, written by Danielle Solomon and directed by Logan Browning. The short tells the story of Atlanta’s top braider, notorious for canceling on clients, who finds herself having to braid her way out of being canceled by one of the biggest social media influencers. An all too common experience in Black hair culture inspired Solomon to write this script.
“Hey Boo came from a time [when] I was going to a big event for work, and my makeup artist ghosted me. And from the different stories from my friends, people on TikTok ranting about their experiences, especially in Atlanta. It’s terrible with braiders. So, just trying to poke fun at it but also deliver a message to braiders, nail techs, and people [who] want to cancel on you [at the] last minute,” says Solomon.
This story also spoke to director Logan Browning, who fell in love with Solomon’s script—leading the dynamic duo to produce a hilarious hair tale.
“Working with Danielle was a lot of fun because she was confident in her vision [and was] collaborative. I think that energy transpired for me and our set. I mentioned this before, but you can have what you think is a great idea, but if you don’t know how to share it with someone else, that idea might die.” says Browning.
Night Off, written by Kiana Butler Jabangwe and directed by Tika Sumpter, features new parents Pat and Curtis attempting to rekindle their flame amid weed-induced mommy guilt and trippy hallucinations. The story pulls from writer Butler Jabangwe’s life, “[drawing] inspiration from changing a million diapers.”
“I am a first-time mom. My son was about three months old when I was trying to come up with an idea and my husband and I had our first date night [since the baby]. [We] drank too much wine [and] got a little silly and I was like, this is the story,” says Butler Jabangwe.
For Tika Sumpter, she approached her directorial debut for Night Off, mirroring the sets she loved working on as an actor.
“I just wanted it to be fun. I always say it’s not brain surgery. We’re supposed to be having fun and entertaining people. When the [cast] made me and the crew laugh, I knew we were doing something right,” says Sumpter.
The final short, Power Dynamics, written by Mayanna Berrin and directed by Nicole Byer, combined humor, Berrin’s experience as an executive assistant, and a splash of fan fiction. When a moonlighting dominatrix is reassigned at her day job as an executive assistant to work under one of her submissive clients, the kinky/professional pair must navigate constantly shifting and unforeseen power dynamics.
Participating in the Women Write Now fellowship was about learning the whole inner workings of bringing a script to life for Berrin.
“When you’re trying to break into the industry, you’re so focused on just writing the best script. As writers, it’s so easy to get stuck in that little silo, but having the opportunity to go from start to finish in the production process has been invaluable,” says Berrin.
For Nicole Byer, Women Write Now allowed her to transition from actor to director and approach directing in her way by enabling actors to go with what felt natural.
“I knew what I wanted and I was pretty specific with it and I like improv. So, I had my actors improvise and it just felt natural to transition [into directing],” says Byer.
Beyond giving these fellows the resources to produce these shorts, they’ve received a one-year first-look deal with Hartbeat. The inaugural 2021 Women Write Now cohort’s shorts Black Karen, Buddy and Bernice, and Take the Job were picked up by streaming service Peacock.