By Nadine Matthews, Special to the AFRO
Seeing the need for more programming that reflected the fullness of the Black diasporic experience, filmmaker Duana Butler and Co-Executive Producer Leslie Fields-Cruz, decided to do something about it. They created the series AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, a unique program which combines travel and cultural exchange with real life topics of global relevance.
AfroPoP is produced by Black Public Media (BPM), of which Fields-Cruz is executive director. It’s co-presented by American Public Television (APT). Packaging the programming as a series was one way of doing a more detailed curation and presentation of the films they were producing. “They were funding documentary films that speak to the Black experience and sometimes they would get on Public Television but there were so many, we decided ‘Hey, why don’t we make our own series?’ I direct the host segments and then turn around and package the series to deliver to public television,” Butler said.
“When Leslie approached me about it, the whole thing was that we need to not present the usual stories of folks from the African diaspora; starving, war-torn, poor, all the stereotypes. Globally, folks are living full lives so let’s talk about politics, arts and culture, different issues throughout the world,” Butler said. “It’s also a chance for the viewer to do a deep dive into global Black culture. This is a series that is specifically dedicated to the African Diaspora. There’s that concentrated focus.”
Butler studied film at Vassar after graduating from Fieldston, one of the nation’s top prep schools. She credits the A Better Chance (ABC) program, a scholarship organization that readies children for entrance into the nation’s more selective schools, with giving her the opportunity to attend Fieldston. Butler even as a child, knew she wanted to be a filmmaker. “I always loved film throughout school as a child. So it hit me when I was in college ‘Oh, I can actually major in this!”
Part of the reason for her confidence in going into film, arguably a very tough industry, was the support of her mother. “My Mom,” she explains, “Is one of those parents who nurtures a child’s interest and is still one hundred percent all in. She is the biggest fan of AfroPop. She’ll always talk to me about the host and discuss the topics on the show.”
Actress Danielle Brooks, perhaps most known for her role as Taystee on Orange Is the New Black and as Sofia in the Broadway hit The Color Purple, will emcee the upcoming installment of AfroPoP’s documentaries about life, art, and culture in the African Diaspora. “We approached her and it worked out that she could do it. She brought all that great energy and then some! She hosted,” Butler said with excitement.
Beginning with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Jan. 21, this season of AfroPop will showcase films exploring musical icon Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa!); Black LGBTQ and cultural identity (black enuf*); men’s fashion in South Africa (Dressed Like Kings); CNN commentator Bakari Sellers’ fight for political change in the American South (While I Breathe, I Hope), the aftermath of war in Rwanda (The Faces We Lost), and more. New episodes air every Monday through Feb. 18 on WORLD Channel.
Butler also sees the series as a vehicle for providing further opportunities for filmmakers of color. “What was important for the organization was to provide opportunities for Black producers and directors and to provide a specific platform for them to go out to a major audience via public television.”
Actor Idris Elba (The Wire) was the host of the first season of the now iconic program and Butler remains grateful for his support early on. “Idris Elba put his blessing on that first season, Butler said. “As soon as we contacted him, and this is a couple of years after The Wire, he was like ‘I’m down. Let’s make this happen!’”
Past hosts of AfroPop include Anika Noni Rose (Power), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Anthony Mackie (The Hate U Give), Yaya DaCosta (Chicago Med), Jussie Smollett (Empire), and Nikki Beharie (Sleepy Hollow). Butler sees AfroPop as a way for them to flex different muscles than they ordinarily do as actors. She observes, “A lot of these actors really respond to being able to support this series. I can’t believe all the talent that has come through to help bring attention to this work and in its own way support the magnification of these different filmmakers of color getting their work out there.”