*Mel Jones’ Black millennial women focused digital series, “Leimert Park” explores ground rarely attempted in film and television. It explores Black female sexuality, with the lens of normalcy rarely attempted on screen. Black women are often hyper-sexualized in film and video, but the normal everyday Black woman, career women, that live outside of the spotlight of lights and glamour, and their sexuality, rarely makes it to the silver screen, or any screen for that matter. But what made Mel Jones want to explore this issue in film?
“Because I’m a woman and I have sex,” laughed Mel Jones, a multi-talented producer, director and writer. “It’s a normal part of life that I don’t understand why it’s been kind of extricated from story telling especially around Black women. It’s an important part of our life experience that we should see reflected in video and on screen.”
Set in the artsy neighborhood of Leimert Park in Los Angeles, and inspired by Jones’ real life roommate experiences, the show stars Ashley Blaine Featherson (Dear White People, Bad Hair), Ashlí Haynes (“Twenties”), Asia’h Epperson (“Greenleaf,” Straight Outta Compton) and Wade Allain-Marcus (“Insecure,” “Grown-ish”).
“Leimert Park” was written, directed and produced entirely by Black women co-creators Mel Jones, Davita Scarlett (OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” CBS’ “Evil”) and Kadiatou “Kady” Kamakate (YouTube Rewind, Drowning).
The show was conceived from Jones’ desire to see images of Black women shamelessly exploring what their desires are and being their whole selves as they seek to find their authentic voice. Not solely focused on the characters’ sexual escapades, the series seeks to highlight the neighborhood of Leimert Park and women exploring self-love, play and pleasure in a variety of ways without trying to “fit in.”
“Leimert Park” chronicles the lives and sex positive mis-adventures of three best friends as they navigate life between the complex worlds of dating and sexuality in search of love, happiness and career fulfillment. Featherson plays Mickey who is dissatisfied in her marriage and career; Haynes plays Bridget, a hopeless romantic, who falls for a visiting artist in residence; and, Epperson plays Kendra who documents her sexual experiences in hopes of career advancement.
Television, film, video and news often puts a spotlight on certain stereotypical images of Black women.
“It’s either women who are hyper-sexualized, and who are performing sexual acts in order to control in order to gain some sort of power or it’s completely violent,” she said. ”It’s usually you’re either you’re not sexual at all in a show on television, like you’re a secretary and you deliver a few lines or you’re just the object of desire, but it’s just from a sexual lens, there’s no other kind of dynamism to your character. There’s no in between. Women are just living their lives and having sex, and their whole lives aren’t revolved around it, but it’s important.”
“I wanted to create something that was representative of the life that I lived there and also because I know Leimert is gentrifying and changing,” said Mel Jones, originally of Richmond, Virginia. “I wanted to tell a story that existed in the Leimert Park I knew and loved before it came something different.”
One of the themes that is explored in the series is the issue of gentrification, an issue in the Black community and a hotbed of controversy. Leimert Park, a desirable area because of its proximity to several of the centers of Los Angeles has become attractive to richer and whiter consumers and often, Black cultural centers are wiped out as a result.
“I think that it’s a very important and pervasive issue,” she said. “Our communities are being fragmented and once we’ve been completely devalued from dominant culture, to the result that our property values become low and then they come and value them again and we’re not allowed to participate in the rehabilitation of communities that a lot of time have been destroyed by capitalism and redlining and all that type of stuff. I think it’s unfortunate that the rich culture that anyone’s attracted to in the neighborhood is not revered and protected.”
Although Mel Jones is releasing one of her own productions, she is hardly a newcomer to television and film. The Howard University alum holds a Bachelor of Science in Radio, Television and Film and later earned her Master of Fine Arts in Producing at the American Film Institute.
“I think going to Howard University made it so that I would look at my experience and relevant and valuable, that I wouldn’t feel the need to compare myself and my experience to others,” said Mel Jones, who eventually worked at Stephanie Allain’s Homegrown Pictures for 8 years and rose through the ranks, serving as the President of Production for 5 years.
“It (Howard) demonstrated that we as Black people are not a monolith. There were amazing people from all around the world, whose Black experience was not like my own, and because of that, I felt emboldened to talk about who I was and understand how special my individual and specific life journey, experience and perspective is important. I think that going to a college like Howard University allowed me to refine and to create my belief system in a world where that’s not one that’s totally supported across the board.”
“I like working with filmmakers, I like telling stories,” said Mel Jones. “I believe that stories are deeply healing- that they can change people’s minds and change people’s hearts and I think it’s really important for people that are normally not represented in film and television to be seen because if you’re not seen through your art, you don’t exist in a lot of ways. So all of those movies are an extension of that belief system and I’m very proud of all the work that I’ve done so far.”
Her other films include the Netflix original film “Juanita” starring Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood and “The Weekend,” starring Sasheer Zamata and Y’lan Noel, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mel made her directorial debut at Sundance with “Leimert Park,” a MACRO/Homegrown Pictures digital series and also produced for them the feature film, “Really Love,” starring Kofi Siriboe, which debuted at SXSW and AFI in 2020.
As a director, however for “Leimert Park,” Mel found herself in a different position than she had in her roles as producer for several films. “As a producer, there’s a level of responsibility that you don’t have for the outcome of the movie, you can give them all the resources, but if the director messes it up, it’s on them, they get called out for it,” she explained. “So there’s an extra level of pressure to make it good, and to do a good job, because it all falls on me.”
The Homegrown Productions and MACRO produced dramedy “Leimert Park,” first premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival as Jones’ directorial debut and is now available to stream on BET+.