The world has come to recognize the supreme talent of Viola Davis, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress. But she had to overcome huge obstacles to achieve her success, growing up poor in Central Falls, Rhode Island.
The enormity of those obstacles becomes strikingly clear in an episode of the Apple TV+ documentary series Dear… that’s devoted to Davis. Now in its second season, the show profiles a different entertainer, activist or athlete in each installment, built around letters written to the trailblazers by members of the public inspired by their example.
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Along with Davis, among the subjects in Season 2 are actors Jane Fonda, Sandra Oh and Billy Porter; filmmaker Ava DuVernay; and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Choosing the icons is a key part of the process, showrunner and executive producer Donny Jackson explained as he appeared at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted event.
“It’s a collaboration between the production company and executives at Apple TV+, and we look at a vast range of individuals who’ve had some kind of impact on world culture,” Jackson said. “At some point we had a list of 170 names to go through, and ideally, we’ll get to all of them in seasons to come.”
The letter writers come from all walks of life. Finding these authors is the work of producers on the Dear…team.
“[They] comb social media,” Jackson explained. “They look at articles, they maybe even tap some of their friends to see if they know someone who knows someone, etc., in terms of those degrees of separation. But it’s a matter of seeing beyond fandom of it, [people] who have spoken about this person having an impact on their lives in a profound way. … The goal really is to see how these ripples on a pond occur — who has impacted someone and how is that person now trying to, in their little part of the world, impact other people?”
Director-cinematographer Jenna Rosher shoots segments with the trailblazers reading the letters sent their way and films the letter writers in settings that reveal something about them.
“We really want to embrace the environment that they come from, and we want to almost walk through their life,” Rosher said. “We’re walking through their neighborhood, we’re walking through their home. You might see family members around them. We want to get a sense of where they come from and how their life was obviously impacted by this icon, this individual, and see the sorts of things that they’re doing that are feeding off of that energy from that person.”
Dear… has showcased a diverse array of icons and letter writers during its first two seasons.
“It’s a deliberate choice,” Jackson said. “The goal is to show, with this wide range of ethnicities and personalities and ages, how much we’re alike, ultimately. It’s easier to underscore that if you see all these differences, but what it comes down to emotionally is the core humanity of it — that we all feel alike. We fear things, we aspire to things, we hunger for things. And if you see a variety of people doing that from a cross-section of the world, then you have a sense of, ‘This is what we’re built from. This is what human beings are.’ And I think it’s a beautiful way to illustrate that.”
Check out the panel video above, which includes a clip of big-wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton, who is brought to tears by a heartfelt letter.
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