When I see celebrities interviewed, I often marvel at how they seem to have it so together. Their confidence radiates when they are “on.” It’s almost as if they are on another plane than us regular folk. But after watching a few episodes of the new docuseries “Behind Her Faith,” I found myself forgetting that the women sharing their intimate stories of disappointment, triumph, and faith with honesty and raw emotion are famous people.
“Behind Her Faith,” created by writer/director Paula Bryant-Ellis, features Essence Atkins (“Marlon,” “Ambitions”), Aisha Hinds (“Underground,” The Hate U Give), Niecy Nash (“Claws,” “When They See Us”) and Angelica Nwandu, founder of The Shade Room. The docuseries launched its first season with each woman in one of four installments airing on the Urban Movie Channel, a subscription streaming service dedicated to Black film and television from AMC Networks’ privately-owned subsidiary, RLJ Entertainment.
“You see the glamour, you see the red carpet, you see the television shows, and then you say, even if they have problems, oh, they’re rich. Oh, they’re successful. They can get through. No, they’re just like us. They feel pain, just like we do,” said Bryant-Ellis.
The Urban Movie Channel, which launched in 2018, is in growth mode as it works to expand its viewership. As support grows for Bryant-Ellis’ vision, she’ll expand her circle of stories in future seasons to include accomplished women of faith in entertainment, sports, music, business, politics, and ministry. Behind Her Faith is the first major foray into filmmaking for Bryant-Ellis, as she has held multiple leadership roles in banking and finance. She’s a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, has an MBA from the University of Phoenix, and also a BA in Accounting from Concordia University. It was her son, Jay Ellis, who encouraged her to make the move. He’s the executive producer of the show and you may recognize his name from the actor’s lead roles on HBO’s “Insecure” (Lawrence) and the horror film Escape Room (Jason).
“He [Jay] was the one that said, ‘Mom, I think you should get into entertainment.’ After I left corporate America, he said, ‘I think you should start checking into producing so that we can do projects together.’ And so that’s pretty much what I did. And then, from there, I went back to school and took classes, and the creativity started to kind of bubble up, and I had a chance to create this show,” said Bryant-Ellis, who studied filmmaking and producing at the New York Film Academy in New York and Los Angeles.
It was her love and passion for Christ that inspired Bryant-Ellis to do the series. She had been praying for guidance on what to do next and feeling a strong desire to create positive content that inspires, especially since she believes that women of color are not typically represented well on television.
“God had my heart at the time. He put this show in my spirit to do. I wanted to use women that we knew their faces, but we didn’t know their backstory. We get sound bites a lot of times through interviews, but there wasn’t a form where they could just sit and tell you about what their journey looked like and the challenges that they faced and how they have endured and then the importance of a relationship with God in their life. All the women were women that I prayed about. God made it possible for each one of them to bring their stories,” said Bryant-Ellis.
She has a strong relationship with God now, but Bryant-Ellis says it took a while for her to mature in her faith. She grew up in a Baptist church and accepted God into her life as a teen, desperate for a lifeline from the pain she experienced when her parents divorced.
“I was just in this broken place. My parents had divorced, and I was trying to figure this thing out. I was 13 at the time. By the time I’m 16, I’m still sitting in all this pain, and I don’t know what to do with it. Back then, they called it, ‘join the church.’ You had to join the church, well technically, that meant you were giving your life to Christ.'” shared Bryant-Ellis.
And she did. But the experience left her heartbroken because she thought her life would immediately be better, and it wasn’t. For her, life got worse before it got better.
“In that moment that we accept Christ, our life does change. But nobody tells you about walking out that journey and the importance of a relationship. It was a long time before I picked up the Bible. I was very angry, very broken. It was a long time before I prayed. And in my twenties, I got on my knees, and I told God, I said, ‘You know what? If I’m going to be saved, you’re going to have to do better, because I can’t do church. I want a relationship,'” explained Bryant-Ellis, who said from that moment on, she was on an “amazing” journey to find that intimacy with God. “If I call you father, I want to have the same conversations with you that I would with my father. I want to laugh with you. I want to cry with you. I want to come to you for advice,” she continued.
Over the years, she has gone back to attending church off and on and credits one former pastor for giving her a love of studying the Bible.
“I go to church to get my Word, and then I’m out of there. I go to church to get fed. But then I know the responsibility of growing in the Word — that onus is on me. I have to be active and learning the Word and sitting with God, spending that quiet time with him in my praise, in my worship. That’s my responsibility,” said Bryant-Ellis.
And that intimacy is at the core of her message to viewers. When you listen to each woman in the episodes, openly claiming her faith and stories, it’s clear that they all have an authentic relationship with God, and it’s a genuine part of how they live their lives.
“I feel so honored that God trusted me with these stories and honored that these women trusted me with their voice. I feel like a shepherd of their stories right now,” said Bryant-Ellis.