EXCLUSIVE: ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith and his Mr. SAS Productions (Stephen A’s World, Why Not Us?) have teamed with Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens’ Propagate (Hulu’s Hillary) and Confluential Films (OWN’s Black Love) for Black Excellence, a documentary series examining the legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Confluential Films’ Codie Elaine Oliver will direct Black Excellence, which will explore HBCUs’ impact across American politics, business, culture, sports and entertainment. With a mix of original interviews, archival footage and media, the series will look at prominent figures such as Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Raphael Warnock, Stacey Abrams, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Taraji P. Henson, Anthony Anderson and many more who attended HBCUs. Depicting how their experiences at HBCUs shaped their careers, the series will spotlight moments in culture where these colleges set the tone from Beyonce’s Homecoming to Ohio State Football Marching Band presentations, and will highlight HBCUs representation in 2020’s historic elections. In addition, the series will examine the recent uptick in donations and attention on HBCUs from celebrities such as Michael B. Jordan, Deion Sanders, Chris Paul and MacKenzie Scott and how the donations will impact these institutions.
HBCUs played a critical role in facilitating the growth of the American economy from Reconstruction to the turn of the century as they organized around educating and training a newly freed slave population. For many students, HBCUs were the only option as predominantly white institutions would not let them in.
Smith, who graduated from Winston Salem State University in North Carolina, can relate to that. Growing up poor, “I was distracted by the streets, wondering when I was going to have meals, when I was going to have a roof over my head, and when you are preoccupied with those challenges, you are not worried as much about your education,” Smith recalled. “It led to the system stereotyping and marginalizing you, questioning what you could do and what you could be because your grades and SAT score are the only thing they had to indicate what your potential was. When I went to an HBCU, I was surrounded by people who looked like me, who shared my cultural identity, shared my challenges, my trials and tribulations, I didn’t feel alone.”
At a HBCU, “you had cheerleaders, you had mentors, you had people who held you accountable but they did so because they cared so much about uplifting you and making sure that you shine, so when it’s all said and done, No. 1, you can be successful, and No. 2, you can be in a position that I am today where you can shine a light on the challenges we face, highlighting, articulating and illuminating why that is and then you can move forward and push an agenda to showcase the talent that comes out of HBCUs and what we are truly capable of. Everywhere you turn — Athletics, Entertainment, Politics, Culture, Corporate America — there’s excellence oozing from the African-American community, despite the odds. And more often than not, there’s a connection to HBCUs along the way. Yet, somehow, we don’t hear enough about it. Quite Frankly, that needs to change”
Despite this legacy of 150 years, HBCUs are only just becoming a mainstay in the national conversation, a process which received a massive boost from having an HBCU alum, Harris, in the White House for the first time. Smith acknowledged Harris’ role in raising the visibility of HBCUs as the first woman and the first Black person to become a U.S. Vice President.
“She comes from an HBCU, she wears it proudly, she makes sure to pay homage and bring notoriety and attention to what Howard University has done for her,” he said.
For the past two years, Smith has served as Brand Ambassador for the HBCU Week Foundation and has promoted HBCUs on his ESPN show First Take. He has also hosted HBCU Week collegiate conferences that generated on-the-spot HBCU college registration for over 2000 students, who have been awarded more than 11 million dollars in scholarships.
Smith will further expand his efforts with Black Excellence. “I’m honored to have both Propagate and Confluential Films partnering with me to tell the COMPLETE story of HBCUs once and for all,” he said. “It’s about damn time!”
Oliver, a 3rd generation Howard University alumna, will helm Black Excellence in her first directorial effort beyond OWN’s Black Love, now in its fifth season, which she co-created and directs. “Without HBCUs, I would not be who I am – which is a person whose grandmother attended Wiley College and grandfather attended Howard University, whose mother and father met at Howard University and became a lawyer and a doctor, respectively,” Oliver said. “I grew up with infinite opportunities thanks to my parents’ and grandparents’ HBCU education and there is nothing more deeply ingrained in me than the responsibility to celebrate and uplift the Black community. I am a 4th generation HBCU graduate and It’s an honor to be able to tell this story and put into perspective HBCUs’ contributions to all of American life.”
Oliver will executive produce Black Excellence alongside her husband, filmmaker Tommy Oliver, via their company Confluential Films.
Black Excellence marks Smith’s first original work outside of ESPN Networks via his Mr. SAS Productions, which he founded and runs as President and CEO, with Rushion McDonald as COO. The duo executive produces Black Excellence alongside Brian Dobbins for Artists First. Owens and Silverman executive produce, Valerie Idehen co-executive produces for Propagate, which made a big foray into documentary programming with the Emmy-nominated Hillary.
“The story of HBCUs and the impact they’ve had on American society has never been told on a large scale,” said Propagate founder and co-CEO Owens. “We are pleased to partner with Mr SAS Productions and Confluential Films to shine the proper spotlight on their legacy of Black excellence. It’s time we tell these important and compelling stories, and Stephen A and Codie, both prominent HBCU grads who exemplify Black excellence and influence culture, are the right voices to represent HBCUs. We can’t wait for the world to fall in love with this project and HBCUs the way we all have.”