You know the drill: All men are dogs, all women are gold-diggers, and baby mama drama is the new black. Whether it's films based on corny, celebrity-penned relationship advice manuals or sitcoms based on trite cultural stereotypes, there's no shortage of cliché material clogging up big and small screens alike where the subject of black love is concerned.
But for the last three months, the locally produced web series "Smoke and Mirrors" has been blurring those lines with a heartfelt, humorous take on the topic.
Though the storyline is told from a male point-of-view, the storytelling is intuitive. That's partly a result of the collaborative, yin-and-yang balance struck between the female/male production team KarynRose Bruyning and Artemus Jenkins. She writes and directs, while he edits and handles the cinematography. The longtime friends, who met while attending Tuskegee University a decade ago, came up with the idea to do the show while working on a full-length film about relationships. But when Jenkins' real love life went sour, "Smoke & Mirrors" became the creative catharsis.
Atlanta-based Jenkins is also behind the web docu-series P.O.P. (Power of Pussy), which exposed a different side of Atlanta strip club Magic City with dressing-room interviews of the club's exotic dancers. In the fictional "Smoke and Mirrors," the character Jenkins plays (Sonny "Dixon" Richard) is also a filmmaker and a newly single brother who's back on the meat market after an abrupt break up with his girlfriend. But Sonny discovers bachelorhood ain't all good. He has to stomach girls who break wind in bed, bring their confrontational BFFs on first dates, and use him as a cheap dildo minus the post-coital cuddling. Though the themes are universal, Sonny's neverending search makes the story personal. By episode 8 of the 12-episode series, he's learning to navigate a new relationship without fully understanding why he and his original girlfriend (portrayed by Ashley "Cali" Tweed of P.O.P. fame) broke up.
When I talked to the show's creators a few episodes back, we discussed their contribution to the growing lineup of smart web series, why their own friendship got off to such a rocky start, and the reaction Jenkins' real-life ex has had to the show.
How did you all meet and become collaborators?
A.J.: We know each other from college. We met in a semi-contentious way. We didn't like each other at first but for whatever reason - we don't know exactly when it happened or how - we just grew to become friends.
KarynRose: I know how.
A.J.: Well, fine then. Tell him how.
KarynRose: Ok, well, when I met him I hated him. We met our freshman year of college [at Tuskegee University] and I hated him to the point where somebody stole his bike freshman year and I was happy that he was marching around unhappy because he made me so sick.
Why did you hate him so much?
A.J.: Cause I talked about her church jacket.
KarynRose: Nobody makes fun of me. So this was like that first winter, because I'm from Florida, and I didn't have a coat. I come into the cafeteria and A.J's going in about my "church coat." And I wanted to slaughter him. It was horrible. I'm like I don't even know you that well and you're talking all this shit? But he was, and from that day forward I hated him. Then somebody stole his bike and I felt vindicated by the universe.
We come from a crew of what we call 'superfriends,' but he was just the person in the crew I didn't like. By the time we were sophomores, we were always at breakfast together and he became kind of funny. And by the time junior year came around, we were solid. Now that's the part where he says, we're not sure how it happened. But the next thing we know we are besties and I'm braiding his hair, which started his dreadlocks. So we've been friends for a very long time. And I definitely started off wishing he wasn't present all of the time.
Well I have to get this question out of the way. Have you all ever been a couple?
KarynRose: Absolutely not [laughs].
You laugh at the thought, KarynRose?
KarynRose: It's true. Under no circumstances.
The theme of the series and you all being collaborators made me wonder how much of the material is from real experience from A.J.' life or maybe from your life or both?
KarynRose: Well, I think it makes it more interesting because we have only ever been friends. It really gets to be my take on the ridiculous women that he picks. Because there hasn't been one that I'm like, 'Oh, she's wonderful.' I'm always like, 'Where did you get this girl from?' So, it's been my opportunity to take not only his experience but my other guy friends' experience and give my take on it and turn it on it's ear in some instances. In some cases, there are completely fabricated stories but in some - like in episode 5 where he goes on a date and a girl brings her friend - that actually happened.
The series itself is definitely inspired by his recent breakup with his last girlfriend. That's where it started.
So how did you all start talking about this idea and bring it to fruition?
A.J.: Basically, me and my ex broke up and I was in the process of figuring out what I was going to do with my newly single self. I just started thinking about how to make something productive out of it. I can't say exactly what the idea was that I had because it would kind of give away some of the story that's about to happen. But the day after we broke up, I was sitting on the couch because we were sleeping in separate rooms and all that stuff. I was uncomfortable so I didn't have anything to do but think. In my mind, I felt like I had relationships figured out, and after the break-up it showed me that I didn't. So I thought maybe I can create something that tells that perspective. I'm 30 years old, and around 30 you think you know it all - or at least people in America believe you're supposed to. And then you find you've got a whole lot of shit left to learn. So that's just really the perspective that the character is coming from. He's just trying to figure things out and going through even more trial and error.
How does the collaboration work? Who does what?
A.J.: Basically, I relinquished pretty much 98 percent of the writing to KarynRose because in the beginning when I was acting like I wanted to write, some of it was a little too personal and of the moment. It just wasn't fitting where we wanted to go with the story. So KarynRose writes everything and she runs stuff by me. Sometimes I insert stuff regarding how to make it work technically. But the story and ideas - even though it's inspired by me and her male friends - pretty much comes out of her brain.
This new wave of smart, black web series, a la "Awkward Black Girl," is kind of expanding the way black people are depicted beyond the stereotypes of traditional TV sitcoms. Was that something that you all were consciously attempting to do or was that something that naturally happened?
A.J.: That's just how we are in terms of the way it came together and how it's presented.
KarynRose: But also, regarding the "Awkward Black Girl" reference, we don't live under a rock. We're very much aware of the web series things that are happening. But we were really coming off the popularity of "P.O.P." and understanding that we wanted to do more character-based, more narrative-themed work. I remember calling A.J. up like, 'We need to do something," and we hadn't really decided what it was. So we definitely watch. We have ones that we love; we have ones that we don't. But we do watch other web series. We were consciously aware that they were launching a group of people that would become our contemporaries once we decided to go into this. And honestly the people who came before us gave us an [idea] of what we didn't want. We were very clear about what we didn't want to do based on what we saw.
And what was that?
A.J.: A lot of stuff that we didn't want to do revolved around technical things. For example, KarynRose saw a comment where someone said we did a really good job because the series looks really professional. So I guess when people watch other web series by black filmmakers there are aspects of them that don't look professional. Maybe the sound isn't on point, maybe it doesn't look as good as it could, maybe the acting is lacking a little bit. Just really those things that maybe the average eye doesn't notice but I notice. That's why I'm real nitpicky about how everything looks, and I guess it pays off when people can say it looks so professional.
Karyn: Walking into this I wanted to tell an honest story and not simply to do things for a laugh. The series is funny because it is, but not because by any stretch of the imagination do I fancy myself a comedic writer. We didn't go into it with that. We didn't go into it thinking it would be a melodrama either, but in some situations when you decide that you want to be a comedy then you're stuck with a format of laughs per minute. And I wanted to have the flex so that if the episode just wasn't funny and it was making you think and its deep and moody then I have that room to do that. I can say what I want.
Has your real ex-girlfriend watched the show and, if so, has she responded in any type of way?
A.J.: Only two situations from our relationship [are depicted], and one of them she didn't remember. It honestly hasn't been a big deal - me and her are still cool.
KarynRose: The few things that have shown up from their relationship, I begged him to let me include. They were so good that I wanted to include them, but in a respectful way that wouldn't hurt anyone's feelings.
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