When Lynnette Ramirez, head of development for Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance’s eponymous production company, logs onto Zoom to discuss the release of “Heist 88,” the company’s first feature, with Variety, her virtual background catches the eye. It’s a black-and-white photo of two children — a little boy and a little girl — alongside the Bassett Vance Productions logo.
It doesn’t take long to recognize that the striking shot is a family photo — and the two kids are the Hollywood power couple’s now-teenage twins Bronwyn and Slater Vance.
“This company is about legacy,” Ramirez says. “And not just their family’s legacy — but it certainly feels like that’s where the heart is.”
Indeed, Bassett Vance Productions is a family business, but it’s more than that. Formally founded in 2020 as one of the partnering companies with MTV Entertainment Group’s development program for BIPOC and women filmmakers, the company’s mission statement notes a commitment “to producing timely media that encourages dialogue amongst the communities reflected in our projects and beyond.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bassett and Vance are among Hollywood’s most respected (and decorated) actors, with two Primetime Emmys, two Golden Globes, a Tony Award, 17 NAACP Image Awards and countless other nominations and trophies between them. Plus, Bassett is set to be honored with an honorary Oscar in 2024.
The Bassett Vance corporation has been around since the early 2000s, and both have worked behind the camera for some time — she executive produces the hit procedural drama “9-1-1,” in which she stars, as well as its spinoff “9-1-1: Lone Star,” while he executive produced his latest series, the legal drama “61st Street,” for example. But the namesake venture marks their first official foray into producing together.
Ramirez first met with the couple via Zoom in early 2021. “You’re delighted when you get in your inbox, ‘Courtney B. Vance would like to speak with you.’ That’s not a bad email,” Ramirez laughs, adding, “My diligence of working to bring underrepresented voices and stories to the forefront really allowed my name to be put in the hat.”
Her name had been shared by Tim McNeal, Disney’s senior VP of creative talent development and inclusion, so her reputation preceded her. Bassett was impressed by Ramirez’s experience developing content across racial and cultural backgrounds. (Her resume includes a long tenure with George Lopez, as well as executive positions with Fuse Media, “Red Table Talk”-producer Very Tall Productions and 20k, a CBS Television Studios Co.)
“They both had these values they were holding on to — inclusion and strategy — and making sure that, thematically, what we’re putting out into the world is moving conversations forward,” Ramirez says. “It’s less about trying to create a narrative that is our own belief system; it’s more about a narrative that’s going to ask you to ask questions — which I know sounds really deep when you’re talking about film and TV — but it is the core values of our company. We’re always using that as our compass as we develop and go through the twists and turns of the Hollywood machine.”
With the trio aligned on their mission, in April 2021, Variety announced that Ramirez had been hired to lead development for the nascent banner.
The company’s first project, the docuseries “One Thousand Years of Slavery,” was narrated by Vance and premiered on the Smithsonian Channel in February. Then came “Heist 88,” which had been a passion project for Vance and writer Dwayne Johnson-Cochran. It was first set up as a series for FX in 2017 but re-developed as a feature. Once the Bassett Vance Production deal was done in 2020, the project moved quickly from script to shoot to screen and debuted via Paramount+ on Sept. 29 and on Showtime on Oct. 1.
Directed by Menhaj Huda, “Heist 88” tells the unbelievable story inspired by one of the largest bank heists ever to occur in the United States. Vance stars as Jeremy Horne, a criminal mastermind who is on his way to prison but decides to pull one last job. Set in 1988 Chicago, the film follows Horne as he recruits four young bank employees (Bentley Green, Precious Way, Xavier Clyde and Nican Robinson) to steal close to $80 million in a “daring and brazen assault on the U.S. banking system,” during a time before the “widespread computerization and the vast cybersecurity of today.” Keesha Sharp and Keith David also star.
Following “One Thousand Years of Slavery” and “Heist 88,” the company’s upcoming slate includes a limited series on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre; “Love Radio,” a romance based on the acclaimed YA novel by Ebony Ladelle; and a reimagining of “The Preacher’s Wife,” after Vance starred in the 1996 version; as well as forays into unscripted content and podcasting. Ramirez’s credits Bassett and Vance’s industry reputation with helping the production company make moves swiftly.
“Oftentimes, when you’re in a production company, you’re in an outgoing call business,” Ramirez says. “But Angela and Courtney have such a stellar reputation and are truly professionals who have shown so much grace in Hollywood, that we have a lot of incoming business. People want to work with them; they want a piece of their wisdom and legacy.”
How does “Heist 88” set up the future for Bassett Vance Productions?
At Bassett Vance, we want to lead with entertainment. So, the fact that it’s a heist movie and a thriller and steeped in that genre is compelling. We want to do all genres of projects, but we look for projects that have really strong themes and have gravitas in the point of view of the filmmaker or the writer or that particular piece of IP.
“Heist 88” is a great example of what you’ll see more from us. Entertaining films that you will find in mainstream media, but that also have meaning and point of view. It doesn’t always have to be heavy handed, but we are very conscientious of what we’re putting out in the world and the questions and the conversations that will be had around the content we do.
“Heist 88” is left a little open ended because we want to create projects that inspire dialogue that keep people communicating and talking, particularly around race, culture, and humanity, and how are we all connecting with one another. The last decade has been a very interesting time politically and socially, and with technology, and all the different debates we’re all having, even though it’s set in 1988.
What was an important theme to highlight?
To really represent Chicago. Reading the project and learning more about what was happening in Chicago in 1988, particularly in the Black community following the death of Harold Washington [the city’s first Black mayor, who died in late 1987] — while this movie isn’t about that or to talk about conspiracy or local politics, it was a setting and a time and a place for young characters to be seduced.
Thematically, what really drew me in was the David versus Goliath story and the idea that we often see the story told from a white gaze or perspective of going up against the man. Being able to tell that from the point of view of young Black characters in a time and place that feels relevant right now. We often get to see white characters be morally complex like Jeremy Horne and call them anti-heroes; when they’re characters of color, we call them criminals.
This is a company that was founded when entertainment entities like MTV and Paramount Global were stepping up to create more opportunities for people of color. We are now three years into those pledges — what is the state of DEI in Hollywood today?
I continue to hold on to optimism because we’re having the conversations and we’re able to bring these projects in and talk about the business around them and not about the one and only. Are we still faced with challenges that we have to be smarter, better and be there first to win the race? Absolutely. We still have a ways to go.
I’m not doing business any differently and I don’t think any of our team at Bassett Vance is. First and foremost, we want to tell human stories, and human stories are inclusive. That is our focus. And then we try to figure out our business angle to hold on to our collaborators’ creative values. How are we going to protect them along the way?
In the film, Vance’s Jeremy Horne has a line that really struck me. He says, “You can fill the seas with promises made to Black people in this country. But nothing is going to change until we do what needs to be done.” Is that the goal for this company?
It’s very interesting, and I think very reflective of the times that we’re living in. That line and a few others are in there because they are integral to the story and the theme, but they also speak to our [company] mandate and our mantra. We say we just want to get people talking and everybody in a room appreciating one another’s point of view.
How do you navigate creating these opportunities for people of color with the experience that you’ve had?
For my own career, I’ve had to always be able to evolve and pivot, so that is innate to what has been my journey. It’s how I go about doing business at Bassett Vance; our team is constantly asking the questions of “What’s new? What’s next? Why us? Why now?”
Angela was very excited about — and clearly you see it in “Heist 88” — introducing new talent or helping to shepherd talent to new levels. The young cast are all wonderful young actors who are working, but this is certainly an opportunity to play opposite Courtney and to be on Showtime.
“Love Radio” is also a project that we’re excited about as a company, because two young actors get to have leading roles that are meaty and complex and not stereotypical in any way. That is also a mission in the company: how do we continue to bring up more young talent, celebrate them and move them to the next level.
What is new? What’s next? And what’s now?
We’re really excited about our TV and film slate. We, of course, have been a bit stalled [due to the recently ended WGA strike and ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike], but we have continued to work on unscripted projects and documentaries. We have two different podcasts in development, and we also have a couple of feature films that, once we return to work are looking like they’ll be ready to go into casting with MTV studios. We’re continuing to do projects with Courtney and Angela in them, and without them.
The first couple projects have featured Vance. What does evolving this business look like when it comes to making projects that he and Bassett are not in front of the camera or the microphone for?
We have a book called “Love Radio” from a wonderful literary company called Kate creative, and it is a young person’s love story. It’s very much a throwback thematically and tonally to something like “Love Jones” or “Love and Basketball.” It was a really well celebrated book. That’s a good example of a feature film that we are currently working on with a wonderful young writer that we hope to bring wherever screens are now — streaming or theatrical. I think that really speaks to our brand and celebrating Black love in a really positive way in this coming-of-age story.
In addition to “Love Radio,” you’re also developing a limited series on the Tulsa Race Massacre and a reimagining of “The Preacher’s Wife.” What is the latest on those projects?
Both “Love Radio” and the Tulsa project are very far along in development, and when the strike ends, they will be very close to a green light in casting. For “The Preacher’s Wife,” Anthony Hemingway is attached to direct and produce with us. We don’t have scripts yet, but we do have the vision and the take and the idea. It will be a reimagination, so it’s not exactly a remake or sequel. We also have some unscripted documentaries — a slate that lives a bit more in the social commentary world. It’s still entertainment-driven but different than some of our narrative features.
What did the team learn from making “One Thousand Years of Slavery” and “Heist 88” that you’ll carry to your next projects?
When you go into a company, you don’t really know how you’re all going to work together until you get into production. What’s been wonderful is that we don’t always agree all the time; we wouldn’t be a creative force if we did. But the level of respect and grace that Courtney and Angela operate under, and the idea that they let everybody do their job was beautiful.
We have a young development team — they would fall into the Gen-Z, younger millennial [demographic] — and we listen to their feedback. People of color at large want to see themselves reflected in the world we all live in. There isn’t necessarily a cul-de-sac for Latinos and a neighborhood for a Black audiences. Which really allows us to start with the human story. “Do we want to tell a love story? A heist story? A historical story?” I often tell people, we would have made a movie like “Coda”; it’s a very straightforward coming-of-age film, but it’s told from a point of view we haven’t seen.
That’s what we focus on and what we believe that the young audience — even though it’s a very small sampling inside of our own company — and then the audience at large wants to see.
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