Leigh Davenport’s Run the World Brings Some Much-Needed Joy

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Leigh Davenport
Courtesy of Reese Sherman.

If a show’s storyline centers four stylish friends juggling careers, romance, and whimsy in New York City, Sex and the City comparisons will, inevitably, be right around the corner. But Leigh Davenport, creator and executive producer of Run the World, set out to make something different—a show from this century that actually reflected her reality.

For starters, Run the World takes place in Harlem, where Whitney, Ella, Renee, and Sondi hang out, get brunch, and show up for each other. The series had to be set in the New York City neighborhood because, despite being born and raised in Chicago, Davenport lived there for 12 years and her old stomping grounds—a “microcosm of magic,” she calls it—had not been paid its due on television. “There’s something about living in Harlem that is very unique,” she told W over the phone. “There’s a sense of community, a sense of responsibility that you belong to this community and you want to be an active part of this place where you’re walking in the streets of legacy, of so many amazing Black people who contributed so much so that you could be there—so that you could walk down Malcolm X. Boulevard every day and feel that energy. It pushes you forward.”

The writer’s time living in Harlem was almost a decade ago, when she was in her mid-twenties and working in media, while her friends took positions at law firms and banks. “We were trying to figure out how to be real adults and dating, and I didn’t see anything on television that reflected our reality,” Davenport said. Some of these friends, as well as Davenport herself, would go on to inspire the four core characters of her Starz series—where they juggle the hijinks in their lives and careers (an especially impressive feat as seen in a later episode of the series, in which Rosie O’Donnell appears as the four ladies’ shared tough-love therapist).

Citing the reality television boom in the late 2000s and early 2010s, which included shows like the Real Housewives franchise and Love & Hip Hop, Davenport felt TV’s landscape was severely skewed. “There were a lot of Black women fighting and throwing off each other’s wigs, doing things that didn’t reflect the sisterhood I had experienced at my time at Spelman College and in my time when we were living in New York,” she said. “I felt there were a lot of negative messages being angled toward Black women, and messages that countered being ambitious and made us feel bad about wanting more. I didn’t feel that way.”

“I had never written for the screen before,” she remembered, “But I walked home one night after having wine with friends and I wrote what could be considered a script. The seed was planted and over the next 10 years, I re-wrote that same script, it went through multiple name changes, and I filmed two concept videos.”

After a number of table reads with friends, Davenport quit her job in 2017, moved to Los Angeles, and focused on writing full time. She did everything the “scrappy way”—taking writing classes in her free time from working in unscripted television, reading books about screenwriting, getting notes and feedback whenever she could. “I really wanted to make a transition in my career without starting completely over,” she explained. “I was 32 so I wanted to get my writing to a level that I could come into this space without paying my dues all over again.”

The network she built while working in television in New York ended up paying off. By the time Davenport made it to L.A., she was able to work her connections to get meetings with the right people who wanted to option her show. The executives at Starz quickly fell in love with what she had written. “When we sold the show, the three executives sitting across from me at Starz were Black women,” Davenport said. “They got it. They understood that it had to be set in Harlem and what the voice was.”

Collaborating with series show runner Yvette Lee Bowser (the creator of Living Single), Davenport made Run the World. “When people speak to the change in the industry—yes, there should be more writers and voices and people who can create, but all of those people have to be supported by people on the other side—the executive pipeline,” she said. “The people green-lighting those decisions are just as important as the creators.”

Courtesy of Starz

In Run the World, Whitney, Ella, Renee, and Sondi have experiences that run the gamut. A single episode could show the women grabbing cocktails, running errands, facing a racist microaggression, and then going right back to to their Saturday afternoon plans. This holistic approach to representing a day in the life was important to Davenport. “These are just parts of our experience,” she said. “The wholeness of us is that we can go to brunch and I can talk about Black Lives Matter and also talk about the new Tamara Mellon shoes that I want, and then come right back and talk about Ma’Khia Bryant.”

Up next, Davenport’s work will be seen on Netflix in The Perfect Find. Adapted from Tia Williams’s novel of the same name, Davenport wrote the screenplay for the film that will star Gabrielle Union, Keith Powers, and Niecy Nash. Indie director Numa Perrier will be at the helm of the movie when it starts shooting this summer. “The Perfect Find is a fun romantic comedy,” Davenport said. “It’s sexy, funny, and the friends are grounded—the kind of girls you want to hang out with. It’s about a woman getting her groove back, and Gabby is going to kill it,” she promised.

It is refreshing to watch a show about four Black women getting the Sex and the City treatment, especially when the frivolity of brunch is balanced with real conversations. And Davenport toes this line expertly. “Let’s have a little magic, a little levity, a little fun. All of these things that we deal with—of course it gets dark and hard. But we are also so funny. The way that Black Twitter continues to wow me, it never ceases,” Davenport went on. “To capture that magic, and that part of our experience, I don’t believe that the answer to Black trauma is Black joy. I don’t think that one overrides the other. I just think that we could all use a little bit more joy.”

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