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‘The Debutantes’: NBC News Studios Partners With Westbrook Studios And BET Studios On New Documentary About The Tradition Of Black Cotillion In America’s Heartland

EXCLUSIVE: NBC News Studios today announced it has partnered with Westbrook Studios and BET Studios to co-produce the feature documentary The Debutantes, directed by Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Contessa Gayles. The Debutantes is the story of an intergenerational group of Black women and girls in Canton, Ohio revitalizing the debutante ball, a once popular tradition of the Black middle class.

Contessa is a non-fiction film director, DP, editor and an Emmy-nominated producer. She tells stories about identity, socio-political movement, healing, Black liberation and radical imagination. As an independent filmmaker, her work has been supported by Impact Partners, Field of Vision, Artemis Rising Foundation, the International Documentary Association, the California Arts Council and Queen Latifah’s Queen Collective.

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Filmed at the 2022 Cotillion, this coming-of-age film follows Canton’s first group of Black debutantes in over a decade as they prepare for their formal debut to society as young women. Long considered a symbol of middle class respectability, a new generation of Black girls, many growing up in a post-industrial, low-income community, must decide how much of this legacy they will embrace as a pathway to traditional ideas of advancement and success. Waltz lessons and etiquette classes clash with Gen Z sensibilities, as these high school juniors and seniors find their voices, their light and their own way forward.

Through immersive cinema verite, archival imagery, personal video diaries and Tik Tok dance montages, the film introduces three main characters; Amelia, Dedra and Teylar, as they navigate issues of identity and gender norms, and grapple with the question of whether they must act and present in a certain way in order to realize their dreams of being the first in their family to go to college, or to become doctors or successful entrepreneurs.

The Debutantes is set against the backdrop of rites of passage and rituals, communal mothering and sistering, traumas and triumphs,” said Director Contessa Gayles. “The film bears witness to the lives of Black girls and creates space for us to be presented, as we rarely are — in our full humanity. Neither stereotyped, nor tokenized. Full of strength, resilience, yes, but also vulnerability and irreverence. Neither on pedestals, nor under anybody’s foot — just girls.”

“The film was ignited by NBC News Studios development executive Reniqua Allen Lamphere whose mother shared an experience as a Black Debutante in the 70s,” said Molly O’Brien, Vice President/Head of Documentary for NBC News Studios. “We were then fortunate to be able to bring Contessa Gayles on as director, who had a personal connection to the story as well as a strong vision and artistic approach, immediately immersing herself with the girls, allowing them to control their own narratives. We are also privileged to partner with the teams at Westbrook, one of the most powerful Black owned studios, and BET Studios, who are incredible at nurturing and showcasing the work of Black talent.”

“Westbrook jumped at the opportunity to support director Contessa Gayles in her creative vision of capturing this heartwarming coming of age portrait of extraordinary young Black girls in Canton, OH and the community of strong women elders supporting them. Through the vehicle of the Debutante Ball we witness the adversity and struggle, as well as the camaraderie and joy, of these young women as they navigate their last years of high school and into college. This was one of the first films we greenlit in launching the documentary division and has been a true labor of love. We are truly grateful for the collaboration and partnership with NBC News Studios, BET Studios and our filmmaking team”, said Jannat Gargi, Producer and former SVP Documentaries for Westbrook Studios.

“BET Studios is proud to partner with NBC News Studios and Westbrook Studios in producing The Debutantes, which shines a light on the time-honored traditions of the Black cotillion,” said Aisha Summers Burke, Executive Vice President and General Manager, BET Studios. “Debutante pageants have played an integral role in Black society dating back hundreds of years and through the riveting storytelling of director Contessa Gayles, we celebrate the importance of this legacy through the lens of a new generation.”

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