Erica Sutherlin has acted, written and directed for the stage and screen. Now, she adds another feather to her cap with her network TV directorial debut. The St. Petersburg-based filmmaker directed Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas, which debuts Dec. 4 on Lifetime.
Based on the album Kirk Franklin and the Family Christmas, the film follows Olivia Richard (Demetria McKinney), an assistant pastor in her mother’s church in Chicago, as she takes over as the pastor in a small Texas town. She hasn’t found her voice as a singing pastor, and must get the choir ready for the upcoming Winter Jamboree. Along the way, she finds love, acceptance and herself.
Sutherlin noted that it’s a different type of Christmas movie for the network when we talked to her by phone recently. She called it a “Jesus Christmas movie” because of the focus on the church and gospel music. But the scenes outside of the church are more typical of a traditional Christmas movie.
“You have to find a happy medium where the network still wants to stretch and do something different, but at the same time, they still need to feel comfortable,” she said.
The Tampa Bay Times got a screener of the movie. It’s full of spirituality, powerful music and humor. No spoilers, but the finale is a triumphant moment of joy.
Sutherlin, 41, made a name for herself acting and directing in local theater, including a turn as Lady MacBeth in the Studio@620′s production of Voodoo MacBeth. She taught acting, directing and an introduction to film class at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School for about nine years.
In 2016, Sutherlin had what she calls a “wonderful little midlife crisis” and applied for graduate school at the University of Southern California’s school of cinematic arts. She was accepted into the prestigious film school and, using her retirement money, moved to Los Angeles.
A particular class in which students write and direct a feature film that gets produced by USC proved fortuitous for Sutherlin. It was Voodoo MacBeth, and she was accepted as a writer.
The film, which was co-produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, has been making the rounds at numerous film festivals this year. It tells the story of Rose McClendon, director of the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Unit, who brings a production of Shakespeare’s MacBeth with an all-Black cast to Harlem in 1936. A then-unknown Orson Welles is tapped to direct and moves the setting to Haiti.
Executive producer Tracy “Twinkie” Byrd was casting the film and had an issue with the script because it focused on Welles, rather than McClendon. She asked who had written it. Sutherlin spoke up, and together with Byrd shifted the focus to McClendon.
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This breakthrough led to a close friendship between Sutherlin and Byrd, who introduced her to Mychael Chinn, then a Lifetime executive. They hit it off. But then the pandemic happened, and Sutherlin returned to St. Petersburg.
She was going through a difficult time when Chinn called in fall 2020. He offered her a spot in Lifetime Network’s Director Shadow program. Upon completion of the program, Chinn offered her the chance to direct Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas, which was his brainchild and his personal story. (Chinn left Lifetime to work at CBS Viacom midway through development.)
Byrd is an executive producer on the film, as is Kirk Franklin, who makes a cameo. Kourtney Richard wrote the script, which Sutherlin and Byrd redesigned to give more heart, according to Byrd, who spoke to the Times by phone. It was also important to them for the Black female lead to not be a stereotype.
“You don’t see Black women have feelings,” Byrd said. “We go through situation after situation. It’s about strength and overcoming obstacles and strength and overcoming adversity and strength. But vulnerability is strength ... We don’t see enough of that in Black women stories. And in the story of the Black family, period.”
Sutherlin noted that the team of Byrd, Richard and herself are all Black women and said that the film is the first time they have worked for Lifetime.
Byrd and Sutherlin lived together in an apartment in Atlanta during filming.
“It really helped us bond as an executive producer and a director so that I knew what she wanted,” Byrd said. “I knew what was needed. She knew what was needed from her.”
Sutherlin said Byrd made her feel safe and heard while on set. She said that while she came in with a set of rules, she had to get the team to trust her as a director. She considers herself the shepherd of the vision.
She was a bit intimidated to approve Franklin’s music and give him notes, but told herself, “You are the director, you have to do this.”
Byrd helped her efficiently get the shots for the 5 ½-week project, with just 15 days to shoot the film. She complimented the way Sutherlin listened to the actors when it came to blocking and had a clear vision for the film.
“She was very intentional about how it looked, how it sounded,” Byrd said. “How it appeared to the world. Very intentional about the love of the Black church and what we hold dear. Very intentional about reverence and respect.”
There are Easter eggs in the movie, like original artwork from Sutherlin’s niece, Michaela Angelena. There are books by Black authors, and one of the actors wears a Spelman College T-shirt, bringing in a Historically Black Colleges and Universities element.
Sutherlin said that while she doesn’t believe that movies must fit neatly into the race of the characters they’re about, each of our cultures brings something to the story.
“I want it to feel like Black people,” she said. “I don’t want to feel like I’m taking a story and I’m just casting Black actors. I want ... the feeling of Blackness to come out, the way we interact with one another.”
Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas airs at 8 p.m. on Dec. 4 on Lifetime.