SPOTLIGHT March, 2023: Kai Bowe, Programming Director, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network
One of Kai Bowe’s biggest heroines has always been Toni Morrison. So much so that when, a number of years ago, it was announced on the Oprah Winfrey Show that the famed novelist and humanitarian would be on the show, and they were looking for fans to be part of the audience and at a dinner party with the special guest, it was her greatest wish to be chosen. As requested, she wrote a heartfelt letter as to why she should be picked, and the producers were so taken by it she was included in the top ten potential attendees.
What happened next is one of Bowe’s biggest lessons, but more on that later. Suffice to say that it is beautiful symmetry, and a telling example of the multi-hyphenate creative’s tenacity and talent that Bowe is now the Director of Current Programming, Unscripted for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
From writing to directing to showrunning and producing, in terms of work in film and television, Bowe has pretty much done it all. A woman who chose to work early on in the burgeoning unscripted genre, her resume includes entertaining projects like Starting Over, America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, and The Great Soul Food Cook-Off. She has also been instrumental in bringing educational and historically important documentaries and docu-series to the screen. She was co-EP and showrunner for Resist, a series that helped thwart LA County’s plan to fund two new jails, EP for the Emmy-nominated We Have to Talk about Cosby, Fight the Power, and Ferguson Rises, and co-EP for Emmy-winning Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.
A SUPPORTIVE START
Kai Bowe loved to read from a young age, something she said has held her in good stead throughout her career. She was supported by both her parents, who were big movie fans, but also activists who didn’t believe in having a television in the house. “Going to the theater together was always our favorite family activity. However, because my parents were 1960’s revolutionaries and felt that television was a mixed bag of some positive, but a whole lot of negative images and influences, we didn’t have one. Of course, I eventually became a movie and TV producer, and my upbringing made me very intentional about aiming to inspire, inform and bring joy to viewers.”
There was a depth and diversity of inquiry in the way her parents approached life and childrearing, and Kai remembers frequently interviewing herself in the mirror, taking herself seriously and asking philosophical questions. She was encouraged to try everything, and to use her own barometer of what felt good to guide her in her choice of friends and activities, something she swears by to this day.
Her mother and her sister Nandi, eight years her senior, are two of her biggest early inspirations. Her mom was a renaissance woman, well-rounded, a world-traveled professor, and very politically active. From her mother, as she explains, she learned that “in life, you should continue growing, learning, and enjoying yourself.” Her sister Nandi, a filmmaker, hired 16-year-old Kai as a summer intern for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, on which she was second assistant director. “While other teens were working in retail and fast food, I was working with Spike, Samuel Jackson, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello and so many others. It was a dream! And I took my job so seriously…you would have really thought I was top brass. It was my first indication that I’m a type A producer.”
As to what she learned working with Spike Lee, Kai says, “It’s hard to describe a Spike Lee set, but I guess a word would be “magical”. Seeing that level of brilliance from Spike, the DP, the cast and every department was the ultimate master class in working collaboratively at a level of excellence. It truly changes your DNA. And for me personally, it was a three-month long affirmation that I was someone who could thrive in that type of environment.”
After graduating from UCLA and Howard University School of Law, Kai returned to filmmaking, discovering many of the tools she got during her schooling there came in handy. “I think what impacted me the most as a film executive is learning to keep pushing forward and never giving up. I truly believe that being steadfast is a type of genius.”
EARLY IN UNSCRIPTED
Kai’s early jobs and training included being a WGA trainee for The X-Files and story editor for BET before shifting to unscripted projects. “When I got out of denial that I would be a lawyer and decided to pursue filmmaking, I used those opportunities to hone my screenwriting skills. Later, as reality TV was taking off, I got a strong gut feeling to pivot into unscripted. I can honestly say, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I still use my storytelling and writing skills every day.”
The first official reality show she took on was Starting Over, which focused on six women living together and working to start over with the help of two life coaches. She worked in casting. “On the road, I would interview hundreds of women each day and sometimes had less than 5 minutes to “crack them open” and decipher the fears and desires behind their words. I really honed my intuition about people and I use that skill now in my personal life, as an interviewer, co-worker and executive.”
She also spent time as a writer/producer for The Africa Channel. Working there, Kai explains, “will always have a special place in my heart because I truly admired the network and my executives. And it was also a great fit for me because I had lived in Central Africa as a teenager.” On one project she was told there was no money, given hundreds of hours of footage of Ghana, and asked to create something. She made a full documentary for them with no budget and became one of their go-to producers.
USING HER VOICE
She has since chosen many of her unscripted projects based on her passion for change and making a difference in the world, as her parents taught her, and that passion proved to have been well-placed, given the success of those releases. 2018’s Resist showed the terrible effects of mass incarceration in America, and actually had an impact outside the film industry. The multi-award winning docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath called attention to potentially harmful practices inside the controversial church.
2021’s Ferguson Rises, which won the audience award at Tribeca Film Festival, showed the strength and resilience of the residents of Ferguson, Missouri after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent riots and unrest in the city. When asked how she chose these subjects, which are often about speaking truth to power, Kai said, “When I was a Showrunner, I’d start by again, checking in with my gut about what projects and executives seemed like the best fit. At the forefront of my decisions was my desire to use media in a powerful, impactful way. I know I potentially have a captive audience of millions of people for almost two hours and that’s a huge opportunity to influence. At times, I knew that a project or situation would be challenging, but I’d tend to go for the gusto and get therapy afterwards!”
LANDING AT OWN
Remember how Kai missed out on that Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey dinner party? Well, now she’s the Director of Current Programming for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. Talk about full circle! The lesson she learned from not getting an invite to that dinner party was to always, always ask for help. “I’m big on “phone a friend”. As many people as I can get to help me, strangers, friends, family, I have no ego about reaching out to other people for help, and that’s something I have really had to grow into.”
The new job is a major shift for her. “I joined OWN about two years ago. It was during the pandemic and the industry was struggling to revive and a few networks reached out to me. Again, I took a risk in trying something new and it was the perfect decision for me. I get to spend my days on the other side now — supporting showrunners and production companies as they develop and produce amazing unscripted projects. My days consist of my programming team and I meeting with those producers, brainstorming about any creative or logistical issues, and spending lots of hours noting their cuts.”
There, she has shepherded projects like Profiled: The Black Man, which uses historical footage and interviews to demonstrate the difficulties Black men have faced throughout history and in the present moment, and Legacy of Black Wall Street, a two-part event that tracks the rise of Tulsa Oklahoma’s Greenwood District “Black Wall Street”, up to the 1921 Race Massacre that killed hundreds of people and decimated the 36-block business epicenter. She’s got lots more up her sleeve there, with OWN having recently announced they are significantly expanding their unscripted programming.
This role has been the most rewarding of her impressive career. “I’ve been extremely fortunate in my work throughout the years, however, being at OWN is the pinnacle. In this very competitive industry, most of us would be grateful for decent work and decent pay in an OK environment, but I literally feel like I get to work in the company of giants. Contributing to Ms. Winfrey’s incredible mission and collaborating with our President, Tina Perry and my supervisor, Drew Tappon on series that we know are changing the hearts and minds of people all over the world is truly a gift. There’s a joke among folks who work in entertainment that we should relax…”we aren’t curing cancer”. And yet, what a blessing it is to help people stand up a bit straighter, celebrate their history and culture, forgive themselves, feel more connected to others and laugh out loud.”
As to a work/life balance, something all executives in Hollywood struggle with, Kai sees herself as someone learning as she goes. “It’s a struggle. It’s literally like flying an airplane and constantly having to make course corrections. What helps is that I don’t have any spirit of being a martyr or victim. I truly believe that it is my duty to myself, and all those who paved the way for me, to be in JOY and I take it seriously. I’m a Vipassana meditator and I usually do a 10-day silent meditation retreat each year. That, combined with daily meditation and a whole lot of encouragement from spiritual teachers like Abraham-Hicks, Joe Dispenza and Joel Osteen, helps push me back on the right side of sanity when I’m feeling a bit sideways.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Kai Bowe strives to create content and shepherd a variety of projects that entertain or comfort, as well as those that make change or impact the world for the better. She is someone who personally stands in her own power and walks the walk of striving to be better for herself, family, friends, and community. So many of the most influential Black creatives, including Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey, have incorporated “Each one Teach one”, and Kai continues to embrace that philosophy in all her projects. We at AWFJ so appreciate women who bring such positivity, talent, and inspiration to the world of film and TV! — Leslie Combemale