Made-in-Detroit Starz crime drama ‘BMF’ is all about family

As it heads into its second season, the hit TV series gets a real-life Motor City story right

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click to enlarge Da’Vinchi (as Terry Flenory) and Demetrius Flenory Jr. (as his father, “Meech”) in BMF. - Courtesy of Starz
Courtesy of Starz
Da’Vinchi (as Terry Flenory) and Demetrius Flenory Jr. (as his father, “Meech”) in BMF.

Historically, America romanticizes the gangster's paradise a lot harder for everybody except for 1980s African-American dope boys. Everyone from Al Capone to John Gotti gets the superstar Hollywood treatment, while Maserati Rick and Rayful Edmond are just footnotes. Even in Detroit, ask any suburbanite about Anthony "Tony Jack" Giacalone and then Milton "Butch" Jones, and we're sure you'll get two different answers.

Enter season two of the Starz series BMF, which hits screens in early January. Produced by Detroiter Randy Huggins and rapper-turned-mogul 50 Cent, it's based on the lives of the Detroit-born brothers Demetrius "Big Meech" and Terry "Southwest T" Flenory, who ran BMF (Black Mafia Family) starting in the late 1980s. They were less corner boys, and more like Pfizer; eventually, BMF evolved into one of the biggest drug-trafficking organizations in the U.S., which prosecutors alleged distributed mountains of cocaine in 11 states, raking in more than $270 million in profits. The Starz series begins the brothers' story from their early childhood in Southwest Detroit, and it's just as much of a family story as it is an urban crime drama.

Last season ended with the brothers in the midst of a sibling rivalry-styled argument while walking through Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit, with Terry (Da'Vinchi) telling Meech (played by Flenory's real-life son Demetrius "Lil Meech" Flenory Jr.) that he was leaving the dope game to start a limo business with their father, and Meech trying to convince him otherwise. The brotherly and not so brotherly love has not just been an accompanying undertone to a dope boy storyline — it's actually the thread that ties every episode together.

"I think Terry's had enough," says Da'Vinchi in an interview via Zoom. "He almost died, got locked up — look, 'I'm tired of taking all these chances, let me just try and do things the right way.' I think this was the first time he realized how serious that life could be."

"I feel like my brother knows that he can't be nothing else than a dope dealer," adds Flenory Jr. "We started this and we're going to end it that way. But I feel like Meech and Terry are two different people. My dad is a gladiator, he's going to do what he said he's going to do. And Terry is calm, cool, collected. He's going to think about everything before he does it."

Things change but smooth out in season two. "Afterwards we start realizing we need each other again, but it's on different grounds," says Da'Vinchi. "Meech develops a different kind of respect for Terry this season than he did last season. He sees him more as a partner than a little brother."

The brothers' issues are paralleled by those of their parents Lucille and Charles Flenory, portrayed by veteran actors Michole Briana White and Russell Hornsby.

"She's the matriarch of the family, somewhat dutiful," says White of her character. "She's like this quiet storm that leads from behind. I just connected to her. There was something so familiar and so comfortable about her that it was just kismetic."

The Flenorys are an 1980s Detroit couple struggling with the traditional western society roles of marriage. Charles's difficulties at being a breadwinner bring out his own insecurities. Those frustrations are shared by his sons, who've watched their father struggle for most of their lives and ultimately pushed them to the streets. His wife questions his leadership and decision making, and that drives a wedge between them.

"What does Wu-Tang say? C.R.E.A.M. — 'Cash rules everything around me,' right?" says Hornsby via Zoom. "And so when you don't have it, it can make for an unstable, unhappy at times, unhappy home or unhappy environment. ... When you're constantly looking for the money to pay the bills, to get the things in the house fixed, you have no time for each other. You have no time for your spouse."

The Flenorys's on-screen presence is rich and moving, as Hornsby and White have a perfect chemistry.

"He and I had done two August Wilson plays together and have known each for many years," White says. "We did the original production of Jitney off Broadway."

The issues that have Flenorys in a flux are both authentic and triggering to longtime Detroiters. The 1980s oil crisis and recession sent Detroit's auto industry jobs to record lows just as the crack era was underway. Black husbands and fathers all over the city and beyond were faced with the reality of not being able to provide for their families while losing their sons to the streets.

Charles Flenory is a representation of that. His heavy blue-collar presence throughout the series is made up of equal parts of love, desperation, and ego. Like many of our Detroit fathers, he's giving his family all he has, and it's not enough.

"[Those] men worked hard, they raised their children with a certain tone, and they loved hard as well," says Hornsby. "And that was the time, and that was the kind of men that were needed, and that's reflected in Charles. It was very important that audiences feel that. I wanted audiences to know that there were fathers that were present."

"But this season ... [Lucille's] really learning to be more vocal about how she feels, just more forthcoming and forward, and learning to honor herself in a new way," says White. "This is a real family and they were raised well. This is a side of this kind of lifestyle that you don't normally see, how important family is. They didn't come from a broken family, they came from a broken neighborhood."

click to enlarge Detroit places like Coney Islands are mentioned in BMF, giving it authenticity. - Courtesy of Starz
Courtesy of Starz
Detroit places like Coney Islands are mentioned in BMF, giving it authenticity.

It’s about getting it right

No one familiar with the story is surprised that millions of viewers are watching BMF. As the real-life crime saga came to a close in the mid-2000s with the Flenory brothers convicted and sentenced to prison (Terry was released in 2020, while Demetrius is scheduled for release in 2029), you got the feeling right away that it was only a matter of time before the story found its way onto either the big screen or the small screen. Even without the obvious Hollywood exaggerations, the honest version of BMF has all the trappings of the classic American stories of all time — the Detroit beginnings, the yin and yang brothers, a larger-than-life illegal operation, rags to riches themes, celebrity alliances, wiretaps, and cops-and-robbers chase-downs. Before a script for season one was ever written there was the book, BMF by Mara Shalhoup, several unauthorized DVD documentaries, and many BMF members sharing their sides of the story on podcasts and YouTube.

The most surprising thing about Starz BMF is how quickly it's been able to carve out its own piece of real estate on the crowded genre of urban crime TV dramas. The season one finale was watched by almost 6 million viewers on the Starz app alone. That's a major win for an inner city show based in Detroit, since cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago have been mainstay settings for crime dramas for half a century (and that's no exaggeration). The New York-based Law & Order (ABC) has been around for 22 freaking seasons, and Chicago has their own damn franchise on NBC (Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med). Even a lukewarm show like the L.A.-based Bosch (Amazon Prime) made it to seven seasons.

If you want to compare shows with almost identical content, then go no further than FX's Snowfall (set in L.A.), or Starz's Power (New York) and Power Book IV: Force (Chicago). The only true outlier has been the Baltimore-based The Wire (HBO). Often cited as one of the best television series ever, The Wire created a cult following by cultivating clever storylines and layered characters. But most significantly, it showed viewers an authentic and raw version of an inner city many hadn't known before. BMF has been able to duplicate that same energy and substance with Detroit. With Huggins and his team at the helm, viewers across the globe are finally witnessing a Detroit on screen that gets it right.

Now, we've kind of been down this road before. ABC's Detroit 1-8-7 (2010) was a missed shot at best. The show was canceled after one season, leaving memories of the character Pooch saying, "You just drank the last of my soda" in its wake. (We drink "pop" in Michigan, not "soda.") Next was AMC's Low Winter Sun (2013), which still felt like a Hollywood interpretation of Detroit, not what Detroit is actually like. In fact, the only recent show that truly embodied the genuine culture of Detroit was Comedy Central's Detroiters (2017).

With Huggins and his team at the helm, viewers across the globe are finally witnessing a Detroit on screen that gets it right.

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The one knock against BMF is that too much of the series hasn't been filmed in Detroit, in favor of Atlanta. But you can blame that on Slick Rick Snyder's signing of House Bill 4122, which ended Michigan's tax incentive program for films. Nevertheless, this season has 10 episodes featuring scenes that were filmed in Detroit, including locales like the Detroit City Airport, the Fox Theatre, the historic Raven Lounge, the upscale Roostertail, and a lengthy scene that was shot at the iconic St. Cecilia gym.

"Randy really is the heart and soul and voice of this show, and it's authentic because of what he brings," executive producer Heather Zuhlke says at a Dec. 14 preview screening of the new season.

Scenes were also shot at the original house that the real Flenory family lived in. "My dad in his family lived in that small house for a long long time in that hood, and everybody knows that house," says Meech Jr. "So it was really great to go there and not just have some made-up house, and my family being around the feeling of that. That's what we needed to make the show good. My grandmother was crying the whole time we was there. She just kept telling me and 50 how much it reminded her of my dad and T back in that day. That's what we need, because that means we're doing something right if she can feel it."

The real-life connections between the cast and the people they portray has impacted their performances significantly. Da'Vinchi says he and Terry frequently discussed his relationships with Markisha (played by La La Anthony) and Lawanda (Sydney Mitchell). And White developed a special bond with Lucille Flenory.

"Even when I was on set, I would call her and ask, 'How do you feel about this?'" says White. "Or she would send me a verse from the Bible or say, 'You got this.' ... I feel so connected. I feel like I understand. I met her in Detroit for the first time. It's like we've known each other from another lifetime."

"I talk to my dad like every day," adds Meech Jr. "While I'm filming, he calls me everyday just to make sure if I got any questions, or if I need help understanding where his mindframe was at this time, or if it's something I need to understand he'll tell me."

click to enlarge Demetrius "Meech" Flenory Jr. and Terry Flenory at a preview event for BMF season two in Royal Oak. - Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for Starz
Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for Starz
Demetrius "Meech" Flenory Jr. and Terry Flenory at a preview event for BMF season two in Royal Oak.

It’s about the small things

During season 1, BMF incorporated elements and language unique to Detroit's street and hip-hop culture. The greeting, "What up doe" was said several times, and Ghettotech music, block parties, and jit dancers were highlighted. That trend continues in season two. Places like Coney Islands, Carl's Chop House, the Brewster-Douglas Projects, Brightmoor, Devil's Night, and Hamtramck are mentioned. During the first episode of season 2, the most stand-out conversation occurs between detectives Veronica Jin (Kelly Hu) and Von Bryant (Steve Harris).

"I got sick of the 'burbs, I miss the smell of the streets and the spirit of the D," Jin says.

"You grew up in this raggedy muthafucka', you already know," Bryant replies.

"But it wasn't always like this," Jin continues. "My sister and I used to ride our bikes all over the place when Chinatown was still around. And then they started displacing us to Cass Corridor..."

The exchange is short, but the topic is heavy. The "suburb" that Jin is referring to is Southfield, which at the time was the city of choice many Detroit residents moved to during the 1980s and '90s. The Chinatown nod speaks to the city's Chinese-American community, which 1950s government leaders in Detroit tried to relocate, and the whole thing backfired. It wasn't one of Detroit's finer moments, and oftentimes gets overlooked at how it impacted Detroit's Chinese-American residents.

Detroit's unique sense of fashion is also on display. Men are rocking four-finger rings, gator skin shoes, Pelle Pelle leather jackets, high-top fades, pompadours, and low naturals. Women are sporting denim jackets with tassels, Gazelle glasses, large bamboo earrings, French rolls, and asymmetrical hairstyles. Native Detroiter and famed fashion stylist Marv Neal worked on the BMF set assisting costume shopping for scenes for Meech and background actors.

"Nobody dresses like us or has that swag," says Neal. "It's the way we dance and walk and have our clothes draped. The dope guys would merge to those cities to do business and those cities liked how we looked. It's well-documented."

“As much as this is Meech and Terry’s, it’s my story, it’s Detroit’s story.”

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Neal's assessment is spot on. In the '80s and '90s Detroit swag masters were known for combining elements of various fashion styles, whereas cities like L.A. were known for Dickies and Chuck Taylors, and New York had a heavy Ralph Lauren influence. Whether dope boys or college students, you would see everything from silk suits and shearling coats to Filas and parkas.

"I feel like they caught the essence of what us Detroiters remember," says Neal. "We are now at the age where we remember seeing the dope boys move like them, the minks, the Forums, Adidas, the Sergio Tacchini fits. So they are taking us back to what we love."

Everything goes back to writer and producer Randy Huggins. He's a 50 year-old St. Martin DePorres grad and former Coleman A. Young Foundation scholarship winner. After working as an elementary school teacher post-college, he attended the New York Film Academy and began working his way through the entertainment industry. Huggins connected with 50 Cent while working as a writer and producer on Power.

"I'm from here, and what's really interesting is that Meech is three or four years older than me, and Terry is one or two," Huggins said during a panel discussion at last year's Sept. 21 premiere. "I went to prison in Oregon to visit like three or four times, and what's really interesting is we connected on everything. Everywhere he was at, I was trying to get in. I didn't have access, but I was trying to get in there. All the fashion he was talking about, the silk shirts, snakeskin belt, the colored Levi's. As much as this is Meech and Terry's, it's my story, it's Detroit's story. So obviously this is a drama, so I take creative license where I have to, but it all came from Big Meech. ... It's not anything in here that I didn't hear from him. Now I may have went left when he wanted me to go right, but I gotta tell my story the way I see it."

click to enlarge Detroit rapper Kash Doll plays love interest Monique in BMF. - Courtesy of Starz
Courtesy of Starz
Detroit rapper Kash Doll plays love interest Monique in BMF.

It’s about Detroit

Outside of Detroit's princess of hip-hop Kash Doll (who plays Monique, a love interest of Meech) and a brief cameo by a Eminem as White Boy Rick (made to look younger with the use of special effects), no other cast member is from Detroit, and many had never spent any significant time in Detroit before shooting BMF. Many fans have assumed Meech Jr. was born in Detroit by the swagger he brings to the role and because his family lineage here, though he was born and raised in Miami. But all the main cast members in one way or another have had Detroiters reach out and tell them how well they are portraying us.

"Some people actually thought I was from Detroit, which is kind of dope and a hell of a compliment," says Da'Vinchi. "Because it's one thing when people just compliment you, you know, and they're not even from that area. But if someone is from that area and involved in the story and they're like, 'Bro, you killed that,' that's like damn, that's a compliment. Because you know Black people just don't loosely give compliments. So if they are saying that, they're not just chatting — they mean it."

"There is a lot of pride in the city," says Hornsby. He adds, "I understand that 'Detroit vs. Everybody' attitude and mentality, because I feel like how the city thrived at one point ... there was a steep economic downturn, they were almost left for dead. People of Detroit had to band together, find themselves, and create a way out of no way."

As more layers of the characters and storylines unfold in more Detroit locations, season two should be able to capitalize on the substance and momentum generated from season one.

"One of the biggest differences is that it gets better and better," says White. "Randy always says season two is about elevation, so every character on the show is going to the next level and the drama gets heightened so much."

BMF season two airs on Friday, Jan. 6 on Starz.

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About The Author

Kahn Santori Davison

Kahn Santori Davison is from Detroit, Michigan. He's a husband and father of four and a self-described, "Kid who loves rap music." He's been featured on Hip-Hop Evolution and Hip-Hop Uncovered. He's also a Cave Canem fellow, author of the poetry book Blaze (Willow Books), a recipient of a 2015 Kresge Literary...
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