Black Writers Matter –
A Conversation with Television Writer Benjamin Cory Jones
If you were a fly on the wall watching Benjamin Cory Jones work, it might seem like he’s got a pretty easy job.
A noted television writer with a slew of credits under his belt- the Amazon Prime original series Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman- being his most recent gig, Jones spends his days typing away at his computer. And that’s all you would typically see. “Nothing too laborious,” you might say. But what you’d be missing, and what you wouldn’t see is the enormous accountability that Jones takes on every time he bares his soul on the page, and the huge amount of power he yields.
Yes, with his team, consisting of director Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails), Anthony’s producing partner Mark Taylor and producer Lena Waithe (Dear White People), Jones is committed to changing the prevailing conversation taking place in the mainstream as well as behind closed doors about what it really is like to be an African American man in the United States.
For starters, not only is he leading by example, proving that there are avenues available to black men outside of music or sports, but he’s also providing this country and the world with a completely new black experience and a new family dynamic in his new comedy Bros Before Hos, starring Dijon Talton (Glee), Kevin Phillips (Red Tails), Tuffy Questell (How To Make it In America), Dana Sorman (Harry’s Law), Nia Jervier (Dear White People) and Kristofer Gordon. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jones and getting the inside scoop on what lights him up, starting with his new pilot Bros Before Hos.
Comparatively based on Jones’ own life, and now in development at a major network, Bros Before Hos tells the story of three African American brothers, one gay and two straight, as they navigate their way through life in Los Angeles. “And the two straight brothers actually love the fact that their brother is gay,’’ Jones commented. “So the fact that he’s gay is really not a big deal because they’re all just out trying to find love, happiness and be a family.”
Upon finishing the script for Bros Before Hos, Jones quickly got it in the hands of close friends Anthony Hemingway, Lena Waithe and Mark Taylor, all of whom had already experienced major successes of their own. And together, they self-financed and created a pilot presentation for Bros Before Hos, designed to demonstrate what the show could be if it were picked up by a network and developed as a series. And they did this for a few reasons. First, it was a way for them to stand out among the thousands and thousands of scripts that float around Los Angeles everyday, but never get read, let alone produced. And second, it gave studio and network executives access to understanding the accord and universal appeal of a show following the lives of three African American men.
“They understood the concept, but there is always the question of are people going to watch this because they seem to get very nervous when it comes to black people on TV,” Jones’ said. “You almost have to oversell it and go above and beyond just to make them feel comfortable because it’s people they’ve never seen before. And at the end of the day, Bros Before Hos is a show about a family.”
It’s true, some executives definitely were nervous about the show and it’s focus on three black men, but this was also the tipping point for other executives because from a cosmetic standpoint, Bros Before Hos has similarities to the very successful and often quoted Empire. “Networks and studios always judge new projects based on the other successful shows they can compare it to because then they can predict what will happen with it,” he said. “So I would always get the Empire comparison because there are three black brothers on my show and three black brothers on Empire. And that show is completely different from mine, but it makes executives nervous when they can’t immediately say ‘your show is this meets that.’ So I definitely think coming on the heels of Empire being a major success definitely helped.”
All things being equal, Jones and his team experienced a win in 2014 when they sold Bros Before Hos to HBO where it went through the development process for a little over a year until the pay cable network eventually decided not to move forward with the project. “So it was a setback, but they did give the project back to us,” he said. “And because I knew we had a great product, we kept moving forward and eventually sold the show again to another major network. So it’s all about tenacity in this business.” Yes, Jones’ rise to power would have absolutely never happened without tenacity. In fact, it was the very thing that had him be a force to be reckoned with before he ever even stepped foot into Hollywood.
Born and raised in Memphis, TN, Jones had already had a successful career as a speechwriter on Wall Street for Bank of America upon completing his degree in English Literature from Morehouse College. But eager to take on Hollywood, he relocated to Los Angeles in 2008 shortly after gaining acceptance into ABC’s Production Associates Program, a coveted, on-the-job training and development program that, for a whole year, provides its participants with the experience of being in an entry-level position on the production end of the television industry.
Jones spent much of 2008 being mentored by top ABC executives with the goal being to equip him with the necessary tools and skills that would propel him into a position either within Production Management, Production Finance, Studio Crafts Management, Post-Production Management, Business Affairs or Creative Affairs. But what no one anticipated was his inability to shake the writing bug off his back. “And when the program ended, I started telling people how I wanted to be a writer and get a job as a writer’s assistant. And people would tell me not to waste my time, those jobs were too hard to get, I might as well do something else,” he recalled. “But I just had to block all of that out and keep pushing.”
Jones did just that, eventually landing several writer’s assistant jobs on popular television shows like Castle and The Deep End. And he didn’t stop there, this time, setting his sights on another ABC program, the very selective Disney|ABC Writing Program. In order to gain acceptance, applicants must demonstrate they have what it takes to write for episodic television by actually writing their own original TV pilot script. And the competition is extremely fierce with the program receiving thousands upon thousands of submissions every year and only admitting eight writers each time. Jones applied four times in a row to no avail until in 2013, he was finally accepted.
“The conversation I had to have with myself when my career was at the turning point was either I’m going to go all in, or I’m not going to get what I want out of this,”he recalled. “And what I meant by ‘all in’ was you have to lift the veil and be comfortable with being vulnerable and showing the ugly parts of yourself just like you show the pretty parts of yourself because the key ingredient that a writer needs to have is the aptitude to pour themselves onto the page.” Yes, this was the turning point for Jones because out of his participation in the year-long Disney|ABC Writing Program, he landed his first job the following year as a staff writer on the noted ABC Family drama series Chasing Life. And while it was a huge win for Jones to land a job on a successful show as a staff writer, he knew that position was only a stop along the way to his ultimate goal- and immediately got into action around creating and fine-tuning his own original series.
“As a black writer living in L.A., people were constantly telling me not to be one of those writers that get stuck writing about black people or writing about gay people, but to write about other things. So I did that, and it was all great stuff, but it wasn’t true to who I am,” Jones shared. “So when I decided that I was going to, for lack of a better phrase, not give a f*ck is when things really started to take a turn for me because at the end of the day, people want to read truth. And now, because there’s so much entertainment out there, people really want to know what’s the personal connection you have to what you’re writing about.”
So Jones set aside all of the outside advice and started telling his own story, giving birth to Bros Before Hos. But it wasn’t just for him; Jones had a real commitment to shifting the conversation about black men in this country away from one of violence and police brutality to a conversation for what’s possible. “It’s no secret that the Black Lives Matter movement started because black men were being disproportionately gunned down by police,” he said. “And if you google black men right now, I’m sure what will come up is crime stories because that’s what the media is focusing in on. And as someone working in the entertainment industry, if I want to change the current image of black men, I have the power and the responsibility to put a new image out there.”
While Bros Before Hos completes the development process at a new major network, to be disclosed in the near future, Jones continues to lend his talents to other television projects. He just completed a staff writing position on season 1 of the acclaimed Amazon Prime hit Hand of God, a gritty look at the life of a corrupt judge who, after suffering a breakdown, has a paradigm shift and takes on serving his own version of vigilante justice. “Hand of God really tackles the intersection of faith, religion, politics and morality, and I was very fortunate to write on the first season,” Jones said. “In my career, I go back and forth between writing drama and writing comedy. And I really enjoy writing about darker characters or things that might seem a little more risqué.”
One place where a little “risqué” probably won’t raise too many eyebrows is in the writer’s room at Jones’ current place of employment, the upcoming HBO series Insecure, starring and executive produced by Issa Rae. Set to premier in late 2016, the show will follow Rae’s character, a contemporary African-American woman, as she tries to make sense of the series of awkward experiences, trials and tribulations that make up her life. Jones and the writing staff are in the process of writing the show now.
So, yes, you might say that Benjamin Cory Jones is a writer that always lands on his feet. He’s consistently worked since his introduction to the entertainment industry 8 years ago. And I would assert that the more he participates and develops himself, the more he expands. And while the money and lifestyle are certainly added bonuses, for Jones, there is so much more at stake.
“What’s at stake for me is my life; I write because it’s a God-given talent that I have, and it’s a skill and a gift I have to honor. And if I don’t write, my life is out of sync. My body doesn’t feel right, and my mind gets all crazy. So it’s a part of who I am. I find connection to the world and other people through storytelling. And it’s really my way of connecting to something bigger than myself.”
You can also follow him at https://twitter.com/benthewriter