Twenty-four hours before his win for Best Documentary Feature would result in one of the most powerful speeches of this year’s Oscar night, Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and his Summer of Soul team gathered at an intimate brunch in the picturesque gardens of Dana Walden’s Brentwood estate. Walden was there, along with Peter Rice, Matthew Greenfield, David Greenbaum and other high-level Disney executives. Even Disney CEO Bob Chapek put in an appearance.
They were present to toast the early success of a small Hulu imprint, Onyx Collective, which is run by Tara Duncan and is dedicated to flying the flag for creators of color, bringing diverse, authentic stories right to the heart of the studio better known for its noisemaking franchise brands like Marvel and Star Wars. As Disney continues to reign supreme as Hollywood’s biggest studio, Duncan’s ambitions for Onyx Collective are no less than to create a brand that can compete for that same mainstream attention, making it a hallmark of quality for the industry and audiences alike.
“I want us to make truly broad, accessible, general entertainment hits,” Duncan says. “Unapologetically commercial, global, wanting to rally an audience and shape culture. Executives of color have often been sidelined or overlooked, but this is a big opportunity from a business standpoint. We positioned ourselves early to really take advantage of that.”
Duncan couldn’t have made a smarter first move with Summer of Soul. She and her executive team, which includes Jackie Glover and Jihan Robinson who oversee documentary non-fiction (“they’re celebrities in the doc community”), identified early the magic of Questlove’s ode to the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and the power of a film that shone a light on a chapter in cultural history that had been largely forgotten.
“We were a new brand, and we had a very clear mission,” Duncan recalls. “We tried to go after it before it premiered at Sundance, and once we all saw it, we met internally and decided this was something we really wanted.”
Onyx partnered with Searchlight Pictures, bringing the film to its eventual home in a $12 million deal that marked the largest documentary acquisition in Sundance history. “I really can’t overstate the partnership with Searchlight,” Duncan says now. “It was truly that partnership that brought [the acquisition] to fruition and allowed it to take flight. We immediately saw awards potential, and Searchlight knows awards.”
In the end, Summer of Soul became a dominant frontrunner throughout the season, and while its Oscar win might have been expected by the time the show rolled around, it felt no less meaningful for Duncan. “There’s something about this film,” she says. “We were there [on Oscar night], sitting with the people who’d been on this ride with us from the beginning, and Ahmir spoke from the heart. For it to be recognized in that way, for it to be Ahmir as the filmmaker, and the producing team that put it together, and the fact that people now know what the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is… No one knew, except the people who were there. To see it on screen like that, and to have that confirmation of that truth, that encapsulates everything we’re trying to do with Onyx Collective.”
Duncan, whose career started at Section Eight before she became a creative executive at AMC and Netflix, joined Disney in 2020 to head up Freeform, a young-adult specialized Hulu imprint. She is keen to insist that the goal of Onyx Collective is not about burnishing a big studio’s diversity quota. “There are times where this could feel like a diversity and inclusion initiative for these huge corporations to check boxes. But I think when you empower executives of color to really bet on the talent and material they see, and that’s reflective of their experience, there’s just a different ethos and mandate. We’re positioning ourselves for a future and really doubling down on making content for everyone.”
It’s a philosophy reflected in the company’s name. “We wanted a name that was reflective of the fact that we were wanting to program premium content,” Duncan says of the precious gem she chose. An onyx is “strong and indestructible” she says, but while many people think of it as a black stone, “it actually comes in a multitude of shades and colors. We liked the story of that.”
Disney, she says, is the best possible home to ensure the art Onyx Collective nurtures reaches the widest possible audience. Through partnerships with other Disney entities—like with Searchlight on Summer of Soul—Duncan hopes to place Onyx Collective’s output everywhere on the “cradle to cane” product line of the Walt Disney Company. “We’ve got streaming platforms, broadcast networks, cable channels. We can figure out how to get the content to the right people, and it empowers our creatives to focus on being true to what they’re creating.”
Onyx Collective’s success with Summer of Soul should not be underestimated—the company’s inception was announced only one year ago. And at the time, Onyx Collective was able to announce partnerships that include The 1619 Project, directed by fellow Disruptor Roger Ross Williams, and based on work from the New York Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones. It is produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films. Onyx Collective, too, will work with Ryan Coogler’s Proximity on any non-Marvel projects from the Black Panther director.
Also in the works is a docuseries called The Hair Tales, again in concert with Winfrey, along with Michaela Angela Davis and Tracee Ellis Ross, which will look at femininity and beauty through the lens of Black hair. Onyx Collective’s first scripted series is Reasonable Doubt, with former Shondaland writer Raamla Mohamed and Kerry Washington. It beat Netflix, HBO and Amazon to the punch in boarding limited series The Plot, starring Mahershala Ali. Based on the novel by The Undoing author Jean Hanff Korelitz, the series tells the story of a struggling author and writing instructor who steals an idea from one of his students.
Unprisoned is a half-hour comedy that will mark Kerry Washington’s return to television. The show is inspired by the life of relationship expert Tracy McMillan, played by Washington, and the challenges she faced growing up in foster care while her father was in and out of prison. The show opens with her father, played by Delroy Lindo, moving in with her after his release, and focuses on the delayed father-daughter relationship they attempt to build. “In some ways it’s a story of love between a father and a daughter,” Duncan says. “And it’s also really looking at the criminal justice system in a way that we haven’t seen. I think people will be surprised, from the logline, that it’s actually really funny and there’s a lot of heart.”
Onyx Collective will partner with ABC News on another Sundance-acquired documentary. Aftershock premiered at this year’s festival to universally positive reviews and tells the story of the families fighting for justice after two women died due to preventable complications of childbirth. “The maternity crisis in the U.S. affects all women,” Duncan says, “but specifically Black women in a very impactful way.” The partnership will allow Onyx Collective “to get the message and the story out in a way that also has the journalistic integrity and reach of ABC News.”
There are many more projects in the works, and Onyx Collective’s early success is indicative of that opportunity she says has gone untapped for so long. “You start with the story you want to tell,” says Duncan, to summarize her priorities. “What’s so great about right now is that, then, you can figure out the right format to tell that story in. Some need two hours, others need 10 hours, but even in terms of form, there are things we’re discussing now that are a blend of narrative and documentary. It’s nice to be able to start with what you’re trying to say and let that be the lead.”