Higher Ground: The Obamas’ Promise to Deliver Diverse Storytelling

Former U.S. President Barack Obama sits with former first lady Michelle Obama prior during the unveiling of their portraits at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg - HP1EE2C1B3X0Y

Image courtesy of PBS

By Cristina Goerdt

Higher Ground, the production company founded by 44th U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama, recently announced a slew of new projects to be completed in partnership with Netflix over the next several years. 

On February 5, 2021, Netflix announced in a press release that the offerings will include a mix of feature films and television series, including at least one docuseries and one animated preschool series. 

Among the feature films is a heavily-anticipated adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s critically-acclaimed 2017 novel Exit West. The groundbreaking novel explores themes of transience and belonging through the tale of a couple fleeing a home in the midst of a global migration brought on by a supernatural phenomenon. According to Variety, Hamid’s work was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, was featured on the New York Times’ Best Books of 2017, and was named as one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2017. 

Various sources report that Riz Ahmed, who will also serve as executive producer under his label Left Handed Films with Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, and Mike Larocca for the Russos’ company AGBO. 

Also slated for release is the nonfiction Tenzing, based on the true story of the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Tenzing Norga traveled with Sir Edmund Hillary to reach the tallest peak in the world. 

“This is the story of an unsung hero and the unique bond he formed with another outsider that enabled them to make history together,” Netflix’s statement says. 

Two other feature films — a sci-fi adventure with a working title of Satellite and the mysterious The Young Wife  — are also in production. 

In continuation with the theme of novel adaptions, Fireproof is a television series based upon Angeline Boulley’s forthcoming debut novel that follows an 18-year-old Native girl as she goes undercover in her own Ojibwe reservation at the behest of the FBI after witnessing a murder. Both Boulley and series co-writer, Wenonah Wilms, are from the Objibwe tribe, the Hollywood Reporter writes

While not unfamiliar with traditional documentaries after the wild success of Academy Award-winning American Factory, as well as the critically acclaimed Becoming and Crimp Camp, the Obamas plan on making their first foray into docuseries with Great National Parks. Produced in coordination with James Honeyborne of Blue Planet II fame, the series aims to focus on places of breath-taking, natural beauty around the world. 

Other projects in development include Ada Twist, Scientist, an animated show based on the best-selling book series about a young Black scientist, in addition to The G Word with Adam Conover, a self-described “hybrid comedy series.” 

Oprah Magazine also reported the announcement of several additional projects undertaken by the company including Waffles & Mochi, a children’s cooking show featuring Michelle Obama and muppets; Bloom, a historical drama about post-World War II fashion in New York City focusing on barriers of entry faced by women of color; Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents, a half-hour program educating children and adults alike about healthy eating habits while traveling around the globe; and Overlooked, “a scripted anthology series” based on the eponymous New York Times column bringing to light lives that were formerly overlooked by the publication. 

Founded in 2018, Higher Ground was formed with the intent of diversifying the stories told in prominent media spaces. 

In a statement at the time of its founding, President Obama said, “We [Higher Ground] hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy.” 

The diversity of their projects is astounding for such a young company. Of their three feature film releases, all of them have been focused on uplifting marginalized communities. 

Their upcoming projects continue the trend of seeking a variety of voices to create empathy among those of different groups, and research suggests that it could not come sooner. 

Titled A Tale of Two Hollywoods, University of California Los Angeles’ 2020 Hollywood Diversity report outlines two vastly different realities for female actors, actors of color, and those working behind the scenes. 

While several of the highest grossing films of 2019 provided an increase in representation to females and actors of color — 44.1% and 27.6% of lead roles, respectively — researchers stress the need for more action in other areas of the industry, such as writing and directing. 

“Getting writing, directing and acting jobs is a critical step for women and people of color because success in the industry is largely driven by the credits you have,” said Darnell Hunt, the report’s co-author. 

Another issue is the lack of diversity of studio heads, who play a major role in approving proposed projects. The report found that 86% of studio heads are white and 69% are male, which sets a certain tone among which films and series are more likely to be produced. 

“…Although the industry is changing in front of the camera, white men are still doing the overwhelming majority of the green-lighting and making the major decisions behind the scenes at the studios,” said Ana-Christina Ramon, the report’s co-author alongside Hunt.

This data highlights the need for companies such as Higher Ground, who, under the guidance of the Obamas, strive to break trends in Hollywood by seeking alternative narratives. 

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