What’s Behind Your Faith? A Conversation with Writer and Director Paula Bryant-Ellis
A new docu-series titled, Behind Her Faith, has found a home at the Urban Movie Channel (UMC), the first and leading streaming service for Black film and television from AMC Networks’ RLJ Entertainment. The docuseries looks at the power of faith and its driving force on successful women in entertainment, sports, music, business, politics and ministry.
Behind Her Faith spotlights women who are not afraid to wear their faith on their sleeve, so to speak, and speak openly and candidly about it. Although the women featured in the series come from different walks of life, they all have one thing in common: that is, the conscious decision to put their faith first without fear or regret.
The first installment of the four-part Behind Her Faith series features familiar faces from the big and small screens – that is Essence Atkins (“Ambitions,” “Marlon”); Aisha Hinds (“9-1-1,” “Underground,” “The Hate U Give”); Niecy Nash (“Claws,” “When They See Us” and “Reno 911”); and media mogul Angelica Nwandu, founder of The Shade Room. Each episode will spotlight the #BlackGirlMagic of each woman as they open up to viewers about their greatest achievements and biggest successes as well as their toughest disappointments and most heartbreaking moments, sharing their life lessons and triumphs along the way.
“I am beyond thrilled that the UMC team believe in my vision” said the series’ Creator, Writer and Director, Paula Bryant-Ellis. “As a woman of color, I want to create content that empowers and uplifts women; it is truly an honor to be able to bring these stories to light. I think people will be interested in the personal stories of women and how their faith manifests itself in their lives.”
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Behind Her Faith writer and director Paula Bryant-Ellis about her excitement to produce an inspirational look at faith and spirituality, its impact on the lives of women in various professional backgrounds, and why she feels the series’ release is perfect timing.
Take a look at our chat below.
What inspired you to create a series that spotlights the power of unwavering commitment to one’s faith, especially for women of color?
As an African American female, finding positive content that reflects my values is very difficult to find. As I was making the transition over to entertainment, I wanted to find a way to create content that was more positive, that had faces that looked like mine and that had values that were like mine and my friends. A lot of times when I’m looking for something to watch, the first thing I look for is, ‘Am I reflected in that? Is this a message for me?’ If I don’t see myself reflected in the content, then I don’t believe that message is for me.
That was part of it. The other part of it was my love for God. I was shocked to discover that there had never been a platform created where we [women of faith and color] could just talk about our journeys and our love for God. How we push through tough times, and how we’ve been able to endure – just sharing those stories. Kind of marrying those two things together was how Behind Her Faith was born.
We know that God’s timing is always perfect. What was the production process like, and how long did it take to bring the entire series to life?
God’s timing is beyond perfect. I first pitched the docu-series in late summer 2018. From there, it took six months to get through the contract process. We filmed from May until early November, and we delivered it to the network in December. They began streaming it this year, in March. Who would have known what we would be sitting in right now? That is beyond perfect timing.
I remember when the network told me they were going to release it in March of 2020, I was like, “I can’t believe they’re going to wait that long.” You know? In my mind, I wanted it to air immediately. Hovever, the timing of this is beyond mind-boggling. We just thought we were encountering warfare on the set during production because of what we were doing for the kingdom. We had no idea that the warfare would be tied to a season such as this.
The production was amazing. I have just this unbelievable crew. We were praying and taking communion on set, really fighting through a lot of the issues that we were encountering, because we understood that this message was going to be bigger than we could ever think or imagine. Again, not having any idea of what the timing of the delivery and the streaming would be, and that we would be in the middle of this fight with the COVID-19 virus.
One of the episodes in the docu-series features acclaimed actress Aisha Hinds sharing her real life 9-1-1 experience, and how the power of love, faith and strength through it all is what got her through. What was it like to hear her story?
I was in tears. Everybody on the set was in tears. It was so powerful, and it was so beautiful that she was willing to open herself up like that for us, and just gave us complete raw emotion.
One of the things I think is so powerful about her story is her entire journey. She’s not only on a show called 9-1-1, she experienced her own 9-1-1 life-threatening emergency. She was shot and left in the street to die at 16 years old. The paramedics rescued her, and here she is today on television, on a show called 9-1-1, playing a paramedic.
What could have prepared her? When you listen to her story, everything about her, she has been prepared for these emergencies all of her life. She’s endured. She starts out by telling us it’s the testing of her faith that gave her strength. It’s just so powerful, just her whole story. I just think that is nothing but the love of God that she could’ve endured all of those things that she talks about and still have a genuine and beautiful spirit.
One of the things I loved what she shared is the realization that came to her while she was in the hospital recovering – that she is always on someone’s mind.
Oh my God, don’t you love that?
Yes. That’s very powerful – especially during this time of COVID-19, stay at home orders, and social distancing. It’s important to be reminded that you are always on someone’s mind. I appreciate that episode, and her being so open and sharing her life lessons in that.
That’s one of my favorite things that she says in there, that someone’s always thinking about me, because God is always thinking about us. If God is always thinking about us, then someone is always thinking about us. It’s endless, because it outnumbers the grains of sand. Even just saying it to you right now brings chills over my body, because it’s such a powerful statement of her belief in the love of God.
So many people have reached out to me and said, “I want to have a relationship like that with God,” or, “I used to have a relationship like that, but then life happened. This happened and that happened. I used to talk to God, but now I can’t hear from Him anymore.”
That’s the thing, just hearing that you could be loved that much, that He’s always thinking about you, and because He’s always thinking about you, you’re never alone, because someone is always thinking about you. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful statement she makes there.
In addition to Ayesha, you also feature other familiar faces from the big and small screens such as Essence Atkins, Niecy Nash, and the founder of The Shade Room. How did you select the women that are featured – did you already have those particular women in mind or was there a process?
I did not have a relationship with any of the women. I had my wish list of women that had visibility, but we didn’t know anything about their walk. There’s nowhere collectively that someone just sits and tells you about their journey.
So I reached out to everyone that’s on there, but the harder part was time. As you can imagine, they all are working and very busy. Sometimes I would have to wait for weeks before I could get to the next person – even months. If fact, when we filmed Niecy Nash, we filmed her right before she was nominated for her Emmy.
So all of the women selected represent different parts of a journey. You can see everyone is still working through some of the pain, some of the challenges, but you can see that there’s a genuine love for God. That they are still trying to figure this thing out. They’re still trying to put one foot in front of the other. And that’s what you want people to walk away with – that there is no perfect solution.
And who better to show you that than the women that we always think are perfect? We see them, they’re beautiful, their hair is beautiful, their nails are beautiful, they’re on the red carpet, their clothes are beautiful, their makeup is beautiful. There’s absolutely nothing out of place where we see them. So who better to show you the vulnerability and the intimacy in the relationship with Christ than these women that we think have no problems?
I heard somebody say, “Well, even if they do have problems, they’re actresses and they have money and they can get help.” And I’m like, “Yeah, wait, did you hear these stories?”
Right. Exactly. Because I think another thing that’s coming out of this time that we’re in right now, in our world, is that people are starting to see that the picture perfect celebrity is not picture perfect.
They think that an everyday person – I hate to use that phrase – but you look at someone in Hollywood and you’ll think, “Oh,” like you said, their lives are perfect. They have millions of dollars. Everything is flawless.” But this time that we’re in with the coronavirus, a lot of things have pretty much been stripped away. And so, we’re seeing celebrities – whether it’s sports, movies, music, etc. – they’re starting to show that, “Hey, we are real people with real problems.”
I really think that was important to see, because as a society, many people had started putting celebrities on a pedestal. And it started to affect – especially with social media – Instagram and things like that – it starts to affect your psyche. You begin to think, “Their world is perfect and mine is falling apart.” Well now people are starting to see that they go through things just like everyone else.
I’ve seen celebrities actually lose a loved one to coronavirus. Kierra Sheard, for example, just lost her grandfather to coronavirus, I believe earlier this week. So we’re starting to see that there is a connection and we’re starting to see that, yes, the power of God is real in their lives as well. We’re starting to see more and more celebrities talk about their connection to God, their relationship with God, how their faith is getting them through this time. And that’s very important as well. So even in your series, to have these celebrities say that, “I go through things just like everyone else and I’m still trying to figure it out,” just like you said, “but I have God here with me and He’ll never fail me. He’ll never fail you either.” That’s so important for people to know and for people to hear.
And so, It’s so … It humanizes them, because we think money makes people. We think money and fame is some type of protector, but it doesn’t. And just like you to said, we’re finding out with COVID, money doesn’t matter. It’s killing young and old. It’s killing rich and it’s killing poor. It’s killing black and it’s killing white and it’s killing Asian and Hispanic and Italian and Russian and Korean. It doesn’t know anything. It is just after a life. And if you are a body that inhabits life, it’s coming for your life.
And so we have to get to a point where we are so much more, I think respectful of one another, and stop looking at this outer show and judging one another. But be open to learning about that beautiful spirit that’s on the inside that’s on an assignment and on a journey just like you.
I want to talk about you for a moment and how this project touched you. How has creating and directing this series impacted you on a personal level?
Well, I will tell you, you cannot make a series titled Behind Your Faith, and not think your faith is going to be tested. I told my husband, “What was I thinking?” [laughs] I remember telling God, “I’ll take on the assignment you gave me.” And then I said, “But I need you to be gentle with me.”
I said, “Because I’m taking on this assignment and I don’t know all of what I’m raising my hand to. I’m telling you I’m not being disobedient, I’m telling you I’m absolutely wanting to do it, but I still need you to be gentle with me.” I just remember like having that conversation with God because anytime we take on anything for the kingdom, we are going to be pushed, tested beyond anything that we can think or imagine. And then even people that are covering us, right, begin getting tested, because where the enemy will try to get a foothold in, he will.
I understood those things, but those are the things that keep you on your knees, keep you constantly seeking that direction constantly saying, “God I don’t want to be doing this, if this isn’t what you want me to do or, is this the direction you want me to go? Is this the person that’s supposed to even work on this project with me?”
There were people that would come along and, I would pray. I prayed about everybody on the project and they were supposed to be there, they were there and if not, they weren’t and they would be removed for whatever reason. It was just amazing to watch it.
But I understood that I was doing something specifically for the kingdom that was going to win souls, that was going to draw people to an intimate relationship [with God], and I’ll never know or see the number of people that this will touch. It may go on to touch one, that goes on to touch millions or … And I’ll never see that. And that’s great, because I don’t need to. What I need to be doing is making sure that I’m getting my direction from the Holy Spirit on how I’m supposed to move every day.
What’s next the Behind Her Faith series, and what’s next for you? What other projects are you working on?
We’re definitely trying to get additional seasons. So we’re looking for that opportunity because we want to be able to continue the conversation of relationship with God. I love the space of docu-series because I just love telling stories that are real life. Stories that reflect what that day to day is like for all of us; because I think people need to be encouraged, and motivated, and inspired. And we do that through the telling of our own stories.
Additionally, we’re launching our podcast, the Behind Her Faith podcast, on Friday, May the 1st, and our first guest is Patience Carter Marie. She is a survivor of the violent nightclub shooting in Orlando where 49 were killed. She is a survivor of that, and her sister-in-law did not survive. So that’ll be the launch of the Behind Her Faith podcast, so that we can continue that dialogue about the relationship and love for Christ.
There’s so many things, so much value to the Behind Her Faith series, but if you could pick just one thing that you would like viewers to take away from the series, what would it be?
That God loves them too. He’s no respecter of person, but He wants to have an intimate relationship with him. That’s it. That’s what it’s about.
I love that. And it’s so important for people to know that not just right now, but all of the time, no matter what you’re going through, no matter what’s happening in the world, no matter what’s happening around you, we know the enemy tries to come in. He comes to kill, steal and destroy. So no matter what thoughts may come in your head, what may come in your heart, that God loves you, and he is there for you. And he will never leave you or forsake you. And that’s the most important thing of all, every day. So thank you so much for that.
Ah, thank you. I so appreciate the support and the willingness to just share about the love of God. So thank you. Thank you.
You can watch Behind Her Faith on UMC, which is available on iOS, Apple TV, Apple TV channels, Android, Amazon, prime video, Comcast, and Xfinity On Demand. You can get it on Roku. You can get it on Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, so definitely watch it. You will not regret it.
And be on the lookout for the podcast from Paula Bryant-Lewis also titled, Behind Her Faith, launching on Friday, May 1st.