Kennesaw’s Rhonda Baraka: rising star writes TV One’s ‘Bobbi Kristina’ out October 8

Posted Thursday, October 5, 2017 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

On Sunday, TV One is set to air its most controversial film to date, this one about Whitney Houston‘s late daughter Bobbi Kristina. Bobbi Kristina’s estate and her father Bobby Brown have filed a lawsuit trying to stop it from airing. (He lost the case.)

Who did the network place its faith in writing such a sensitive screenplay? Kennesaw screenwriter and former journalist Rhonda Baraka.

“For a subject like this, you need to put it in the hands of someone who is thoughtful,” said D’Angela Proctor, head of original programming for TV One and a Spelman College graduate who has known Baraka for decades. “And Rhonda is a parent. She has a daughter. She can better understand the relationship between Whitney and Bobbi Kristina.”

Baraka knew this would be a major challenge but didn’t shy away from it. She researched the story using stories already in the public domain and insights from the executive producers, who knew the Houston family when they did Bravo’s reality show “Being Bobby Brown” in 2005.

The film stars newcomer Joy Rovaris as Bobbi Kristina, who died in 2015 in a tragically similar way as her mother three years earlier. Some bigger names are sprinkled into the cast, including Demetria McKinney (“The Real Housewives of Atlanta”) as Whitney Houston and Vivica A. Fox as Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister in law who took care of Bobbi Kristina after her mother’s death. It airs at 7 p.m. on Sunday.

Emotionally, writing this script was difficult. said Baraka at the Atlanta offices of Swirl Films, which produced “Bobbi Kristina.” “I knew this was a real person. And seeing it happen made me realize this could happen to anyone. It could happen to my daughters or her friends. This made it especially challenging for me.”

Baraka said she was happy with what early cuts of the film she has seen. “The director [Ty Hodges] did some really cool artistic stuff not in the script but it enhanced the story,” she said. “He made it visually beautiful and added a layer of edginess and youthful energy.”

Over the past decade, Baraka has written more than 20 TV movies and script-doctored many others. She has also gotten into executive producing and directing. And she pulled this off without ever leaving metro Atlanta, where hundreds of TV and movie productions are now shot. But most creative types congregate in Los Angeles or New York.

For Baraka, staying in Atlanta was about her kids, who are now 19 and 21. “Their grandparents are here. They have cousins. I wanted to be hands on and part of their upbringing as opposed to constantly being pulled away and working.”

But even she is considering the move to Hollywood now that her kids are growing up. “It’s about access, justifiable or not,” she said. “There’s a certain validity given to writers in Hollywood and the movie industry is such a perception-driven business.”

Baraka grew up in a working class existence in Tuskegee, Ala. with a family that encouraged her imagination. She became a reporter and editor, then moved to Atlanta in the late 1980s to start her own lifestyle magazine.

She also began pitching her screenplay ideas, completely naive about how Hollywood worked. But she got no’s galore, enough rejection to inspire a less determined person to give up. On the bright side, a few kind producers gave her advice and she absorbed suggestions like a sponge, seeking to improve over time. Even after she ended her magazine in the late 1990s, she continued to plug away on her screenwriting while raising two kids and doing publicity for the likes of Ciara and Stephanie Mills, media training for record companies and free-lance writing for Atlanta magazine and the Village Voice.

Her steady patience paid off. In 2008, she sold her first film to a production company called “Pastor Brown,” a faith-based story starring Sallie Richardson, Rockmond Dunbar, Nicole Ari Parker, Keith David and a very young pre-“Creed” Michael B. Jordan.

But competing producers argued over the rights of the film, which got held up in court for more than four years.

“I was frustrated,” she said. “I reached a point where I just hated talking about it. I just assumed it would never come out.”

It finally did in 2013 on Lifetime.

Fortunately, Brad Siegel, the head of what Atlanta-based GMC (now UP TV), was seeking to create uplifting, faith-based family-friendly original movies. He saw “Pastor Brown” at the American Black Film Festival in Miami in 2010 and he asked to meet her.

“I just fell in love with her in the room,’ he said. “I saw the movie so I knew the quality of her writing but there was something about her that I just absolutely connected with spiritually and intellectually.”

Siegel asked her to come up with 10 pitches. One eventually became 2011’s “Trinity Goodheart,” GMC’s first original film.

“Though she wasn’t a producer, see thought like one,” he said. “She always had cast in mind.”

They both wanted R&B star Eric Benet in the starring role so they met him at his concert at the Atlanta Civic Center in 2011 right before Valentine’s Day and convinced him to take a chance on the network for his first meaty acting role. A month later, he was on set.

The success of that film enabled Baraka to become the go-to writer for the network. By 2015, she moved most of her work to TV One, where she did modern-day twists on Bible stories including “To Hell and Back” starring Ernie Hudson based on the Book of Job and “For the Love of Ruth” based on the Book of Ruth.

Proctor at TV One appreciates how Baraka gives all her main characters depth. “The best word is nuanced,” Proctor said. “There is always subtle subtext. And she’s nice. She’s a nice human being. You know what we do for a living is really challenging. You’d rather work with someone who is nice and committed. She will be on set every day while writing, writing, writing. She’s a savant. Her capacity for workload is enormous and nothing suffers.”

Early on, Baraka felt was she has always done best is character development. “I love flawed characters,” she said. “Even the heroes have flaws. They’re impatient. They spend too much month. They’re disconnected from reality. They’re insecure.”

Over time, she has learned how to arc stories and characters and to ensure every scene is there for a reason and moves the film forward. And she has to be willing to let things go. “My first draft is my vomit draft,” she said. She said usually she has the film in order by the third draft.

She also learned to write beefy stories while staying on a tight budget. She also creates characters that actors like enough that they’d be willing to take a pay cut to play them.

“We often have to go in and fight in order to get talent attached to our projects,” Proctor said. Baraka’s scripts often make the difference.

“Trinity Goodheart” was made on a shoe-string budget of $250,000. “To Hell and Back” was made for less than $1 million. Executives wouldn’t say how much “Bobbi Kristina” cost but it was certainly far less than a single episode of “Game of Thrones,” which averages $6 million.

Baraka knows it’s no coincidence that two major champions of hers at TV One – Proctor and  vice president of development Robyn Greene Arrington – are also African-American women.

“They want to win,” she said. “They want to make good content. I love that about them. They defy the notion that black women don’t support one another. They have given me a lot of opportunities. I’ve taken them all seriously and have worked really hard at everything they’ve thrown at me.”

TV PREVIEW

“Bobbi Kristina,” 7 p.m. Sunday, October 8, 2017 on TV One

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