Synopsis : Mary J. Blige’s Real Love follows 18-year-old Kendra (Ajiona Alexus) as she sets off on her own for the first time at an HBCU in North Carolina. Attending on a scholarship, Kendra is determined to focus on school while balancing work study and keeping things professional with Ben (Da’Vinchi), her photo class partner. Despite disapproving parents, financial hardship, and even an unexpected pregnancy, Kendra and Ben find themselves falling hard for each other and ultimately learning the meaning of “Real Love.” Even when Kendra realizes that in order to pursue her dreams, she must leave Ben behind, it’s certain that their story isn’t over…
Director: Camrus Johnson
Executive Producers: Mary J Blige, John Davis and and Jordan Davis
Cast : Ajiona Alexus, Da’Vinchi and Princess Davis
Synopsis : The story of Kendra and Ben continues in Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman, jumping ahead more than 15 years. Now a successful photographer, Kendra finds herself in a failing marriage and must reckon with the decisions she made for the life she thought she wanted. When Ben unexpectedly comes back into her life, she is forced to a crisis point and must dig deep to find the strength to take control of her life and accept the love Ben may be offering again.
Director: Shari L Carpenter
Executive Producer: Mary J Blige, John Davis and Jordan Davis
Cast : Ajiona Alexus, Da’Vinchi, Hamza Fouad and Princess Davis
Press Conference with Executive Producer Jordan Davis and stars of the film, Ajiona Davis (Kendra), Princess Davis (Terry) and Hamza Fouad (Kevin).
Q : How was it working with Mary J Blige on this story, and telling to capture everything from her thoughts and what she wanted to accomplish?
J.D : Well, it was fantastic and a real privilege. I mean, I’m a fan like everybody, of Mary’s. So it was just a great opportunity. I knew Mary and she told me she wanted to do these with her songs. And it was just like, it was just a thrill. And so she wanted to get these. She picked these two particular songs. And she wanted to sit in an HBCU and wanted to talk about a woman’s experience and experience of an artist. And we got into the script and we got into picking writers and to work with us every step of the way. Between the casting and the costumes and the music, I think that you can see in the films her, her spirit and her brand through the whole thing.
Q: Alexis, let me just say that you did a phenomenal job. I watched Real Love on Saturday and I was just happy Laughing Crying and love all at the same time. And you had to dig through a lot of emotions because you suffered a traumatic incident in Real Love and we kind of see you overcome towards the end of the episode, but in Strength of a Woman, what are some emotions that you’re going to have to tap in and that you’re going to be a mature woman out of college and 15 years later?
A.A: Well, I definitely had to first of all, thank you and I’m so happy that you enjoyed Real Love. That movie is so dear to my heart, but I definitely took time to make that transition, knowing that it will be a 15 year gap difference and so I focused a lot on body movement, you know, placement of my feelings and emotions knowing that it’s not the whiny Kendra, more of the assured Kyndra in herself. And so it’s being more real, like I’m not, you know, 30 obviously, but just really kind of taking that into account of being married, wanting to have a family and just being real to a black woman, you know, overcoming those circumstances and being true to what that looks like in the future. So it was a challenge, but it was actually very fun and also being realistic of the aftermath, you know, so I definitely went deep into detail about what we can do 15 years from now.
Q: For anybody that wants to take it. Does Real Love and Strength of a Woman coincide with each other?
A.A: I can go with an absolutely because it’s like, you know, your experiences, especially at the age in college at HBCU shaped see so much of where you decide to go and decisions you make how you act and react, you know from certain situations in your life. So everything that happens in your life, I think you know definitely shaped who you are in the future. So they definitely go hand in hand and you have to take into account a lot of what happened before that got us to where we are right now.
P.D: Yeah, I definitely agree. You know, it’s just kind of like a projection into the future. And you see Terry and Kendra’s friendship and kind of how it’s evolved and kind of what they’re going through and obviously of their love in life support really, like build for each other. So I’m really excited for you guys to see that. And there’s a whole bunch of more things but it definitely connects.
H.F : Yeah, and it’s just it’s growth, right.It’s an experience from being young to adulthood and following this, this young woman and young man and their experience with love in different stages of their lives. I think they connect beautifully.
Q: My question will go out which one was the better one filming or whether a better one or a less a better one for you guys if you’d like to share or whatever is equally fun.
A.A: For me, they were both equally fun because they’re just so different. And I think what drew me to the projects were that they were two different films one younger in college and so it had more of a pretty vibrant feel. And you know, a little naive, whereas Strength of a Woman you’re 15 year older and so you are going through the process of having to be more responsible, making more responsible choices and seeing the development of Kendra in her early or later stage in her career.
So to me, they were both fun, but on the first set, I love that you can tell the vibe like me and Princess on the first movie, we’re so giggly all the time, like you know, crazy but when we got the Strength of A Woman, it was the same but we had just more of a stern you know, feeling with each other and also we have Shari (L. Carpenter). She was the director so she definitely brought her centeredness to the project as well.
Q: In Real Love, it made me reminisce backwards in time. So when I was, you know, attending an HBCU living on campus full time. And I haven’t watched the film that made me reminisce in a very, very long time. So when working on his project, did you guys think back or reminisce or did it bring up old memories for you and your actual lives?
P.D: Yeah, I think so. When I got the part I definitely studied a lot of like, the nine days and kind of like how they dance and I listen to a lot of like Mary J Blige just songs and actually watched her music videos and Missy Elliott’s and it reminded me of my mom because being so like dancing with their songs in her kitchen. So it was definitely like a connection to like my mother and kind of like, you know, being a young kid and growing up and listening to the, you know, the RMBs and it just kind of cemented like a really groundedness in me so yeah.
A.A: This is so fun for me too, because I always say I’m such an old soul. So I grew up in the 90s that you know, you can think of and before I actually started filming the film I watched a lot of movies like, Janet Jackson and Poetic Justice, Nia Long, Love Jones, Jada Pinkett and Inkwell, Sam Latham and Love and Basketball. And so when I watched Real Love it’s just so dear to my heart because those were the films that I studied when filming this and I feel like you can see parts and pieces of all that and we definitely need a bit in our generation right now. So it was so fun to be a part of this.
J.D: We talked about that. I was around in the 90s and had a good time in the 90s and it was really fun to set the deck and look at the computers that were in the rooms and the costume, the hair and everything that was going on then I think we had a really good time doing that. And I think that those departments had a really fun time doing that. And I think that the college situation was also fun to be part of there. I think you guys talked about that too.
Q: This is for Hamza. What was it like playing such a diabolical character?
H.F: Fun. It’s always fun to play these types of characters because they are – They are so far removed from Hollywood I find myself to be just as a human being. As an actor, as an artist, it’s always a challenge to tap into those parts of ourselves. But then I always have fun with these types of characters because we get to just embellish those little bits of ourselves that we all have. Like I’m not one to do the types of things or to be seen in the type of way that my character Kevin was, but I definitely have experienced moments in my life to a lesser degree that can then be amplified. So I take the challenge on because the more different that a character can be. For me the more fun that I tend to have with them.
Q: Ajiana, I want to know what it was like working with DaVinci again basically coming from BMF where you were so hard core to Strength of a Woman where it’s a drama love story.
A.A: Honestly, we had so much fun like it was actually happy it was him because we already had a rapport pand chemistry built from before. I think for me at least it was kind of hard to get into the lever mode of like Okay, now we gotta be kissing each other for like two months. But I think overall it just works and we both you know love our art and our craft and what we do, and I feel like everyone just had fun watching us on set and before they met us they were like, Did y’all know each other like yeah, just have this thing and so you know me and him we definitely like Kobe and Shaq out there on the film. So I’m glad it was him.
H.F: You guys also known as an artist coming in and meeting you guys on a second film, that it was such a fun set to be a part of because of that chemistry and because of that connection you guys already had it was hands down the most fun project I’ve ever done. And it’s still a very heavy topic especially in like both films but you and Da Vinci did some special things.
Q: Alexis, what can the audience expect from Strength of a Woman that they didn’t get from Real Love ?
A.A: You can expect? Well, I think there’s so many things you can take from it. But in life, you never stopped figuring out what it is you know or troubles never stopped coming your way. And I just think you see another phase of Kendra being older and more established and more successful just because you know, she’s more successful in her life doesn’t mean the problem stops. And so you see her just take on more of her strength and you’re always finding strength in your journey. It never stops. So Kendra, I think it’s just the real definition of resilience and bouncing back and even when she’s going through stuff from college to now. She’s always pursuing her dreams and goals and you see her balance all of that and I think that’s where you can see the strength in a black woman for sure.
Q: Jordan, what drew you to this project and how did you get involved?
J.D: I got involved because of Mary and I drew into the closet because I’m always drawn to projects about women. And most of the things I do are based on women and for women. And I wanted to do these stories, and particularly this one because she’s an artist and she’s trying to figure out her path and how she chooses a life for herself and incorporates her personal life into a life of pursuing her passions in her art. And I think it is hard for a lot of young women to mine that compromise and she does that in movies too. As to figure out how to find herself and find the rest of her life. I think it’s often a choice women make in their life. And, that’s why these movies in particular were really important to
Q: Given the fact that you know, Mary’s music inspired the films and you know, clearly it’s Mary J Blige, I want to know like were there any challenges that any of you man have to overcome, you know, to make the role your own considering the fact that it’s Mary and people are watching you know?
H.F: I think it’s in my personal experience, it is a ton of pressure you can feel because it’s connected to such an icon. You know, we all grew up to Mary Jo’s music. I would not past tense. I am currently obsessed with this woman. She’s the hardest working woman in Hollywood and feels and is impacted by so many major milestones in my life, through her music and through her story. And you can go one of two ways: you can allow it to overwhelm you or you can turn it off and just try to do justice to the opportunity. I feel like just being able to be casted in this project means that everyone from the top down believes that the artists that were chosen are right for the role, accept that to be true and just do your job like any other job.
A.A : think for me the importance and wasn’t a challenge. It was something I was just very cautious about or the sensitive topics surrounding both for the movies such as issues touch on sexual assault and substance abuse, you know, your parents ageing and dealing with all of that and knowing that I will be the voice for a lot of women that haven’t had a voice in the past. I think I wanted to just make sure I was just representing them as real as possible in a light and letting them feel like they have help letting them feel like they’re being seen and heard and just being sensitive towards people that have actually been through traumatic events like that in their life and how they’re, you know, playing overcoming it
P.D: I was gonna say I think for me, you know, like definitely it’s Mary J Blige’s project and you know, there was definitely a lot of like, pressure that you know, Hamza was kind of talking about of, you know, this is like an icon to legend and I definitely knew a lot of people were gonna watch it. And I think that really excited me because you know, I really like Terry like the character and I really love the relationship between Terry and Kendra . So I thought that was really a beautiful thing to portray. And if I was really excited to be able to be a part of an all black cast, and I’m from Vancouver so we don’t really see a lot of that. So I thought it was a really exciting challenge and I’m really grateful to be a part of this project.
Q: In the grand scheme of I’m gonna say a combination of the Me Too Movement, the Black Lives Matters Movement, by Blue Lives Matters and all of these different movements, how those things play a factor and producing this story because when we think of real love and strength of a woman, subconsciously all of those things kind of come into the fold.
J.D: Well, it’s a period piece. And so a lot of us had to put it in context of when the story took place. So in Real Love, Ajiana and I had long conversations about this at the time. The experience of our character takes place in the 90s and so how she relates to it, how she responds to it, and how the other characters dealt with it. How Princess characters do how the other people in real life deal with it takes place and what was going on in that time and place in the 90s. Right. And so we were trying to stay true to what was going on for a period.
And what occasions were people then and not of now not of 2023. And we worked with Henry of Take Back the Night to talk about to be as true the night to talk about to be as true and authentic and helpful as possible for what victims of assault had been through. And so that we were doing and in terms of a creative process and a script and a narrative that is a non fiction script. But that was also real to what was going on in that time frame. So that affects all of our lives. And it affects us now and affects me as a producer in the terms of the work I choose to do and why I choose to do it and the stories and narratives we choose to tell. But it also isn’t specific to the time and place we are setting this.
A.A: This woman, me and Jordan we were talking about a lot of that even when I spoke with Katie she told me about her journey of how she overcame what she went through and how she was the first woman at the time they speak out nationally and publicly on being a victim of date rape. And you know, she gave me some statistics as far as 86% of rape victims are known offenders as someone you know, someone that’s close to and I was just very, you know, careful on how we portrayed that and the story we told because you know, even back in that time in the 90s people were more taught to be quiet and be hush hush and not speak out about what was going on.
So you have a lot of people who never even told their stories or you know, they couldn’t defend themselves they couldn’t you know, go through the legal cases, but also will Take Back the Night it didn’t happen at HBCUs. But I think it was important that we still incorporated that because it shows people that. Imagine if they didn’t even have that, you know, and it’s just letting you know that a movement is started to help women speak out on that. And they go through a lot of mental challenges, physical challenges, the aftermath is just a lot so I think it was great that we still decided to partner with Take Back the Night and just incorporate that scene because that thing to me is just so powerful and I wish more women had you know, a support system like that.
J.D: And give a connection to an organization that people who see the movie can connect to and feel like they can get some support from and I do think that’s a bit of what the me to movement has spoken up about is that people are now saying me too because they are coming up with some of their experiences that they couldn’t talk about before. A lot of people’s varied experiences were brought back up and said to me too.
Q: I just want to ask about forgiveness. You yourself. Would you give a loved one a second chance, a third chance a fourth chance or one strike if he or she is out?
A.A: Depends on the situation, but if we’re speaking as far as forgiveness as it’s like that’s always easier said than done. Like okay, forgive. But you know, forgiving is just a long process. But in reality, if you don’t forgive someone, it’s like you’re almost still holding on that weight and negativity and there’s something I’ve learned, no matter how long it takes for me to forgive someone but when you forgive someone don’t forget, but you move past it and you’re able to flourish more in your life. I feel like you just let it go. You just, you know, cut that connection, whatever it is, and it allows you to actually be better. But it’s hard to forgive people. You know, it’s like it’s easier said than done, in my opinion.
F.D: Yeah, and there’s something to be said too. But there’s an expression out there where it’s like, holding on to negative earnings or hate or whatever it is, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. And I think that working towards forgiveness allows us to to just do that, you know be able to let go and move on from things because it but again, depending on the situation, right?
A.A: It allows you to not be a hostage of your past, you know.
P.D: I think for me, it allows me to kind of love myself more because I’m kind of like letting go of a lot of weight like they mentioned. And I think it’s really freeing and definitely liberating depending on the situation. To forgive someone and forgive yourself even for whatever it is.
Q: First of all, congratulations on living the dream of working with Queen Mary J. Blige. But my question is for Jordan and the rest of the cast. What is the biggest message that you want? People to walk away from? I mean, walk away when it comes down to the movies.
J.D: I would like people to feel optimistic. I think we’re living through crazy times and I would like them to walk away from these movies and feel optimistic about themselves and about their futures. I think that Kendra has a lot of challenges. I think we’ve put a lot on her in these movies. And I think she finds her way out of places and I think she goes to better places and makes good choices at many difficult challenging times. And I would like people to believe that there are better tomorrows and to see themselves to better places.
P.D: I think a really great thing for people to take away is the idea that real love kind of stems from yourself. I think fully loving yourself as authentically as possible is a really important thing. And, you know, it’s kind of like trusting your intuition and trusting like your journey in life and I think once you kind of have that foundation like life becomes like more enjoyable you know, there’s a lot like, like it’s really positive to stem from yourself and not try to you know, seek external validation from times and if it’s hard, but that was my biggest takeaway, like being a part of this film. I really like seeing myself and I was like, oh, you know, like that, like the mirror, this is real love. And if I could connect to myself, that’s the most important thing.
A.A: That people take to not be defeated by their journey. Don’t be defeated. And know that whatever it is, you’re going through this too shall pass. And even though you know this song, I was speaking with Mary she was like when she hears Real Love and it brings up a painful time in her life, but certain people like us, you know, we hear we think of love and happiness and so sometimes what is painful for you and your life will be an inspiration and motivation to other people. So just learn how to take your story and find your strength and just keep pushing for it because you never know who’s watching and who you’re being a trailblazer for.
Q: Princess, we see Kendra go through a traumatic event. And she basically tries to push you away but you continue to be there by her side. So how important is it for women to know when your true true friends are going through something instead of jumping into petty mode just leaving them all together?
J.D: Yeah, I think. you know, definitely having Grace and I’m trying to understand your friend and trying to, you know, always be them or be there for them even if they’re going through hard times. It’s really important. I think it’s really hard. Sometimes because you know if your friends acting out the kind of like, Girl Like what do you do and like tear up like why are you going through this you know, and you know, the beginning of the film, like when Kendra kind of goes through her traumatic events Terry’s kind of like, what are you okay, like kind of what’s going on?
And then when Kendra really tries to push her away Terry’s like, you know, I’m there for you like I’m here. Like, if you want to talk, you know, I’m here for you. And I think that friendship like that is really important. Because, you know, like, I’ve had some hard times and a lot of people have and when you have people that are there for you, you always know that you’re gonna be supported no matter what you’re going through. And I think that’s, you know, a rare, really beautiful thing and a really important aspect. However, women are true friends, some of them grateful for Kendra and Terry’s relationship.
Mary J Blige’s “Real Love” and “Strength of a Woman” are both available to watch now on the A&E Lifetime Network.
Here’s the trailer of the film.