Munirah Safiyah Jones

By JOHN BEIFUSS, The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ A Memphis filmmaker has created an animated series for Oprah Winfrey, inspired by the coming election.

“We wanted to make something that is thought-provoking, but hopefully funny, too,” said Munirah Safiyah Jones, who was tagged by Oprah Winfrey Network executives to develop, write and direct a cartoon miniseries for the network’s OWN Your Vote campaign, which the network describes as “a bi-partisan, pro-social campaign” to encourage every Black woman “to recognize the power and importance of her vote.”

The first two episodes of Jones’ series, “Sincerely, Camille,” debuted Sept. 29 on the (at)OWNYourVote Twitter page.

Another two episodes premiered Oct. 6 and the final two will debut Oct. 13. After their Twitter premieres, the episodes become available on other OWN social media accounts, including Instagram and YouTube.

The episodes run just under 6 minutes each. “We wanted to make it bite-size so it was palatable for social media,” Jones said. “Because this is where it’s living, on social media and the internet.”

Structured like an animated sitcom with a social message, “Sincerely, Camille” follows three friends _ the level-headed Camille; the elegant albeit not entirely happily married Sara; and the dating-addicted Staci _ as they navigate “life, work and relationships in the throes of the 2020 presidential election cycle,” according to a press release from OWN.

“The series follows the women’s efforts to get their communities informed, engaged and inspired to act in one of the most important elections in American history,” the release continues. “The satirical series provides powerful insight and edgy social commentary on the current political climate and the choices Black women face this fall.”

“Our viewers will instantly relate to these characters as they deal with the real-world issues and concerns impacting Black women,” OWN President Tina Perry said in a statement.

Memphis viewers may especially relate. Although “Sincerely, Camille” is not explicitly set in Memphis, the scripts contain various nods to Jones’ hometown, as when Sara and her husband remember “running through Orange Mound.”

The punningly titled first episode, “Non Party, Son,” introduces the women at an outdoor cafe. The second episode, “Late Registration,” finds Camille hosting a grassroots voter registration drive, and introduces such supporting characters as Camille’s face shield-wearing Republican father.

The situations and dialog make sometimes humorous, sometimes withering references to “social distancing,” police violence and “gaining the quarantine 15.”

“It feels good to laugh,” Camille says at one point. But not everything is a laughing matter.

“Twenty percent of the country isn’t even registered to vote,” Camille says, as she goes “Fannie Lou Hamer on the patio,” in Staci’s words. “People have to vote. Lives literally hang on the ballot.”

“I trust Black women and Black women only,” says Staci. “The country’s full of morons.”

The sympathies of the show’s creators may not be hard to gauge, but “Sincerely, Camille” never endorses or condemns any 2020 presidential candidate by name. “We didn’t want to pick a side,” Jones said. “Even though the OWN audience is mostly Black and more importantly Black women, we know that we’re not a monolith, and we have people of various political affiliations.”

For Jones, being recruited by the Oprah Winfrey Network could have welcome career consequences, as her work is made available to the millions of people who follow Winfrey and her network on various social media accounts.

However, “my life hasn’t changed yet,” Jones said, noting that she spent part of Monday filling out a police report after some tools were stolen from the yard of her University of Memphis-area home.

A lifelong Memphian, Jones, 36, is a Central High School and University of Memphis film school graduate who “creates content,” she says, for the Memphis office of a financial service company that manages pensions.

The videos Jones creates on the job often contain “dense financial information,” so she taught herself animation, reasoning that the animated format helps viewers understand complicated concepts. (Remember the cartoon DNA sequencing segment in “Jurassic Park”?)

Soon, however, she was using her new animation skills to create sketch-like comedic short films about romance and other topics. The films made a buzz at the Indie Memphis Film Festival and attracted thousands of eyes to her “Junt Land” YouTube channel.

A 3-minute funny-because-it’s-true cartoon titled “Dating 2018 _ How Men Communicate” racked up 275,000 views. “That attracted the attention of production studios,” Jones said.

Last year, she was contacted by representatives of OWN, who were planning an animated series for their voting campaign. Jones pitched a concept _ “We knew we wanted it to be engaging and informative and funny” _ and won the assignment.

Jones’ original animated shorts were essentially one-person productions. That’s still more or less true, although for the OWN episodes she works with Oprah Network producers Carla Gardini and Lauren Tuck, plus a cast of Zoom-united voice actors in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Memphis. (Local actor J.S. Tate provides the voice of “Junior.”)

Still, like such celebrated animation auteurs as Mike Judge (“King of the Hill”), Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“South Park”), Jones does a lot. For “Sincerely, Camille,” she is not just writer, director and executive producer but also the voice of Camille and of such guest characters as “Coughing Guy” and “The Virgo.” She creates the simple digital animation _ think “South Park,” but more realistic and less grotesque _ entirely herself, on her computer.

For Jones, this level of control is one of the attractions of animation. Referencing the “Dating 2018” short that first brought her major attention, “I was going to do it in live action, but I didn’t feel like asking people to be in it,” she said. “I didn’t feel like making sure they showed up, I didn’t feel like directing them, and then it just worked better. Animation, you can do whatever you want to do in it.”

Asked if Camille and her friends could find a home on OWN after the miniseries concludes, Jones said: “It’s way too early for that conversation.”

Even so, OWN executives seem to like what they’ve seen. Said OWN President Perry, in a statement: “We are always looking for unique voices and innovative ways to tell stories that matter to our audience, and we’re excited that, for the first time, OWN is creating animated comedy shorts with the talented storyteller, Munirah Safiyah Jones.”