9 Jun Written By Emma Clifton
A new series looks at the power of role models – and the ripple effects of inspiration. Emma Clifton interviews the executive producer of the new documentary series Dear, which stars Oprah, Spike Lee, Gloria Steinem and more.
“The beauty of an artistic life is that one of the reasons work resonates with you, and you think, ‘Oh yes, I want to make that,’ is because you believe that it will have things to say about the world in which we live,” says R.J. Cutler. “And this project, I believed, would have many things to say about the world in which we live.”
“This project” refers to the Apple TV+ documentary series Dear, which was executive produced by R.J. Cutler, the award-winning filmmaker behind documentaries like The September Issue and The War Room. The concept is simple but the result is an emotional powerhouse: 10 iconic modern figures read letters from people whose lives have been changed by their work – and in return, these icons pay tribute to the people who have been inspirational to them. And when I say icons, I mean it: Oprah, Gloria Steinem, Spike Lee and Stevie Wonder are just some of the people featured in the new series.
“Almost all of our top choices agreed to do it, so we were very excited about that,” says RJ of building the series’ dream cast. “And then we built the stories around their stories. In terms of which stories resonated with me, they all resonated with me because they all underscore the point that one person can change the world.”
The show acts as kind of an emotional history lesson as it takes you through how each icon’s journey unfolded and the ripple effects they then had on other people. “There are lots of examples in the series,” R.J. explains. “Misty Copeland doesn’t become Misty Copeland if a ballet teacher doesn’t volunteer at the boys and girls club at the town she’s living in,” he says of the young girl who would grow up to become the first African-American dancer for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. “She couldn’t afford to take ballet classes, her family could barely afford to eat. She can’t afford ballet clothes but the woman who’s come to volunteer to teach that afternoon recognises that Misty is a prodigy and tells her so, and offers her a scholarship… it makes you realise that every one of these icons could be letter writers themselves. They all have someone to thank who inspired them.”
With content like this, you are correct to imagine that every episode is a tear-jerker. Some of them are also extraordinarily timely, in particular the protest scenes from both Gloria Steinem’s episode, showing the pro-choice movement which is still being fought for today around the world, and the civil rights protests featured in so much of Spike Lee’s extraordinary work. On the day before I speak to R.J., who’s based in Los Angeles, the Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of George Floyd have just begun (they are up to day 10 now). “I said to my wife as we were watching the Spike episode last night, ‘We’re living in Do The Right Thing this very moment,” R.J. says of Spike’s 1988 film, which portrays simmering racial tensions exploding into violence and death on a hot summer’s day. “God help us, we were living in Do The Right Thing a year ago, and a year before that, and a year before that, and a year before that, right back to 1988. Odds are, you’re living in Spike Lee’s American at any point in our history. This is a country that seems unwilling to overcome its racial divisions and seems always destined to struggle with that.”
What comes up time and time again in so many of the episodes is how personal politics can be – and the impact the work done by these individuals has had over time. “As Lin [Manuel-Miranda] says: ‘The work you put out into the world, it’s like a pebble in the water and it ripples through,’” R.J. says. “And as Maya Angelou says to Oprah, ‘Your legacy is measured in the lives that you’ve touched.’”
The series proves how important it can be to reach out to someone who’s changed your life; how valuable positive feedback can be in a world where it’s not always given. “The only difference between living in a world of positive feedback or living in a world that doesn’t value positive feedback is to value it [yourself],” R.J. says. “If you express gratitude to someone this afternoon, you will live in a world where gratitude is expressed and valued.”
“The most important thing is we don’t let people with the big megaphones convince us that our value systems are as vapid or destructive or as soul-less as theirs. Those are their values, those are not our values. If they don’t know how to express gratitude, then shame on them. That to me, is a life and opportunity squandered. But for those of us who have different values, this show demonstrates how simple the act of gratitude is and all the wonderful things that can happen.”
“Dear…” is a new 10-episode documentary series executive produced by Emmy Award and Peabody Award winner R.J. Cutler, which made its global debut on Apple TV+ on June 5. Check out the trailer here