Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
For Caleb Davis and his wife, Roni, they took Morrison’s quote one step further. The result? A Daytime Emmy-nominated web series. What happened next? It became a hit.
“Tough Love” is the story of a close-knit group of African-American millennials in New York City. When they’re selected to participate in a social experiment, they’re forced to reexamine their lives and weather the challenges of careers, relationships and life in the Big Apple.
In less than three years, the independently-made drama put Hollywood on notice. “Tough Love” garnered press from the likes of ABC, BET, Fox, Ebony and Essence magazines.
From the beginning, Roni explains that “Tough Love” was devised as a means to fill the void of positive African-American narratives.
“I really love those old movies from the nineties,” she says. “The ‘Love Jones,’ the ‘Brown Sugar.’ I didn’t see that. So Caleb and I decided we wanted to create that. We wanted to do something together and he was already a filmmaker and I’m a writer, and that’s how ‘Tough Love’ was born.”
It was the success of one particular black creator that provided the Davises with a template in utilizing social media as a resource.
“One of our biggest inspirations is Issa Rae,” Caleb says. “She created ‘The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl.’ She created content, put it on YouTube and connected directly with the audience. So we saw that model. We knew that the internet was going to be a revolutionary force behind ‘Tough Love.’ We let fans interact with us to help build the show.”
With a game plan in place, Caleb and Roni cast the six leads for the show: Jordan Barton as earnest and caring Quincy; Ebony Obsidian as level-headed and loyal Alicia; Bradley Clarke as hot-shot cassanova Jackson; Verina Banks as unapologetically fierce Jordan; Natalie Jacobs as positive free spirit Monica; and Devin Coleman as golden-hearted bad boy Darius.
Each of the leads were named after characters from films such as “The Brothers,” “Love & Basketball” and “The Best Man,” as nods to black cinema. Along with Brian Lipkins-Scott and Will Rosati taking the helm with production, the “Tough Love” team was set. As the official website explains, production and filming were not without its difficulties.
“Try to envision a small cast and crew running through NYC, hopping on and off trains, shooting in the middle of the street, filming early mornings to avoid crowds – doing anything necessary to get the job done. That’s how we produced ‘Tough Love.’ We didn’t have a big budget and we didn’t have a large team. What we did have was a dream and the will to make it come to fruition,” Roni says.
With a three-man crew and cast members who gave up their entire weekends during filming that first summer, the duo accomplished what they set out to do.
“We had auditions on a Monday and we shot it that weekend,” Roni says. “We were financing it ourselves. We tried to structure it as we went along. Very, very guerilla-style [filming] the first season. As we went on, we learned a lot from that production process.”
The high-quality production and cinematography of the 30-minute episodes are a testament to the skills of the married showrunners.
With a Master’s degree in film from Kingston University in London, Caleb has worked throughout the U.K., France, Italy, Greece, Asia and West Africa. He’s been a member of production for projects for Bravo, CBS, the Food Network and Oxygen.
Holding a Master’s degree in media management, Roni has worked for CNN and Fox. An accomplished journalist, she has interviewed celebrities such as Patti LaBelle, Kelly Rowland, and Nick Cannon. She also wrote and produced a number of projects while studying in Italy.
“Tough Love” originally premiered in November 2015 on YouTube. The online drama quickly garnered more than 45,000 viewers and more than a million channel views from all over the planet.
“I definitely wanted to pull out the things [the characters have] been through and why they are the way they are,” she says. “We tried to make them as authentic as possible and we wanted to come up with new ways to show these characters, their internal struggles and how they’ve grown.”
One of the unique qualities of “Tough Love” is that it exists on multiple levels. The viewers watch as the characters have a dialogue about relationships and entrepreneurship. Through social media, the audience can continue that dialogue and weigh in on the characters.
As the show’s popularity grew, recognition and accolades quickly followed. In 2016, “Tough Love” received three nominations at the New York Web Fest. Last year it was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Digital Daytime Drama Series. The online drama also has the distinction of being the only African-American series to receive the honor.
“We were there on the red carpet, giving interview with the press and, as a group of black people there in attendance, people were definitely intrigued,” Caleb says. “Just being there, it definitely shows we’re doing something right.”
As with all journeys, this one has come to a close. The third and final season concluded in February 2018.
“Even though the show is ending, it is still living on YouTube,” Caleb says. “We urge viewers to tag their friends and continue sharing the show which will be new to new viewers.”
Although “Tough Love” has ended, the Davises are just getting started. The creators are already in the development stages for a future project.
Heeding Morrison’s wisdom and taking a concept from an idea to an Emmy-nominated hit is a Cinderella story in itself. One that Roni and Caleb hopes inspires upcoming creators the same way Issa Rae’s “The Misadventures of An Awkward Black Girl” inspired them.
“We definitely want to encourage other creators to create,” Roni says. “Don’t depend on others. Go out there and make it happen.”