Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay’s newest social experiment is the first unscripted series of the illustrious director’s resume coming to NBC, and the goal of this project falls in line with the rest of DuVernay’s catalog of critical work. Home Sweet Home asks families to step into the home of complete strangers to take on a lifestyle quite unlike their own.
The show prompts a conversation about walking in someone else’s shoes but goes beyond the platitude — the series provides an unscripted look at families trying to navigate new and unusual spaces during a time when nearly all conversations result in political polarization.
DuVernay is the series creator and serves as the executive producer, along with Paul Garnes of ARRAY Filmworks, and The Nerds of Color caught up with the decorated director at a recent roundtable to discuss the significance of this project. As this was her first unscripted series, the immediate challenge came from DuVernay transitioning from curator and creator, to observer, which isn’t entirely new for the director. “I had a hard time with this,” she explained. “Usually, I have a script. I have the actors. We’re going to rehearse. You’re going to stand here. Do you think you want to stand here? Do you feel like you’d go to the window when you say that line? Good, let’s try that. Set the camera, follow them around, action. Let’s do it.”
This isn’t the first documentary style work of hers. 2016’s 13th surveyed the cataclysmic shift in prison policy and the booming carceral industrial complex formed in the United States after the introduction of the thirteenth amendment. The film garnered critical acclaim, with many praising the tenacity DuVernay exercised in her criticisms. Home Sweet Home takes on a similar kind of critique but with the subjects serving as the project’s major players and “protagonists.”
DuVernay talked about the process of having to stay behind the camera while her subjects actively engaged with the world around them. “You can’t tell [the families] what to do. You can’t — I mean, I think some shows do tell them what to do, but we didn’t. It was truly, as you say, a voyeuristic experience where we are just watching these people live lives in these other spaces.” Those other spaces prompt necessary conversations that come up at the dinner table the two families share a meal toward the end of each episode.
When asked about the social experiment element of the series, DuVernay pulled no punches. “We don’t all have to be holding hands,” she said. “We don’t all have to be on the same page. But understand that I’m a human being, that he’s a human being, she’s a human being, and they are a human being, and at least have that basic human respect and dignity for one another. Can’t we just do that?” At a time when conflict fuels most conversations, the aims of Home Sweet Home are to be less confrontational, more conversational, and completely organic.
From a technical standpoint, there are different challenges presented with this kind of series, as we’ve seen countless social experiment related television shows or reality television shows in the past try to create dissonance between different subjects as opposed to healthy discomfort. “The key design of the show is that I said I don’t want this to be based on conflict,” DuVernay explained. “I want this to be based on curiosity. So, the core piece of it is that both families want to be there. There is no one in either family who doesn’t want to be there. There’s no bratty teenage daughter who is like, I don’t want to go. No. They all want to go.”
DuVernay continued, “The offering was, would you like to have a social experience and a cultural exchange? And so, as we cast people — our beautiful casting team — as we cast people, we’re looking for folks who are like, no, I want my kids to know what it’s like outside our community, or kids saying, God, I really would love to go to another place.” Home Sweet Home is an addition to DuVernay’s catalog of social commentary that deepens the conversation, and as an unscripted project, works as a blueprint for future experiments that hope to promote thoughtful dialogue. Ava DuVernay and NBC will pull back the curtain on 18 families from varying backgrounds with the new unscripted family social experiment series debuting this Friday, October 15 at 8PM ET.