Just when you thought this television season couldn’t get any blacker, BET raises a fist and busts through the door with the ultimate “for us by us” miniseries: The New Edition Story.
Often described as their generation’s Temptations and Jackson 5, New Edition—Ronnie DeVoe, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ralph Tresvant, Bobby Brown and, later, Johnny Gill—have more than a story to tell.
No, it’s not one the #HollywoodSoWhite mainstream recognizes, even if the Hollywood Walk of Fame now has a New Edition star. While mainstream media has spent many years gushing over New Kids on the Block (literally, New Edition’s white counterpart), the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, specifically, many of us have always known New Edition jump-started that wave.
There are scores of black women in cities big and small all over the country for whom New Edition was their first musical crush, first record purchased and first concert attended. That history is so strong, they have literally not given up their “Candy Girl” statuses for over a quarter-century.
But The New Edition Story isn’t just for hard-core fans. Because it’s six hours long, there is plenty of room for the uninitiated to catch up. The first hour is all about New Edition’s very humble beginnings in the Boston projects Orchard Park. It shows how the group’s members all got together, where their name originated and the strong work ethic instilled in them by their longtime choreographer-manager-father figure Brooke Payne, Ronnie DeVoe’s blood uncle, played superbly by Wood Harris, already known for the roles of Avon Barksdale on The Wire and Ace from Paid in Full.
There are not enough accolades for how incredible the young cast is. That’s a good thing, because they are essential to setting the tone for the following two nights, even though The New Edition Story kicks off with the grown-up crew—Elijah Kelley as Bell, Algee Smith as Tresvant, singer Luke James as Gill, Keith Powers as DeVoe, Woody McClain as Brown and Empire’s Bryshere Y. Gray as Bivins.
Both Caleb McLaughlin and Jahi Di’Allo Winston, who play young Bell and Tresvant respectively, cut their teeth as young Simba in The Lion King on Broadway. Also, Dante Hoagland, who plays young Bivins, has several TV and film credits to his name. Tyler Marcel Williams (young Brown), and Myles Truitt (young DeVoe) may have lighter résumés, but they don’t miss a step. The young men completely capture the innocence of young friendship and being a part of something bigger than themselves, as well as the tensions that five preteen boys who spend so much time together are bound to develop.
At the Atlanta screening of the first episode, Truitt recalled playing a young DeVoe meeting the rest of the NE guys for the first time (he was a late addition to the group) and thinking, “Man, I’m reliving Ronnie’s journey of meeting his friends, his family, and now they are my family.”
There may be a silver lining at the end of The New Edition Story, but there is no sugarcoating. Being in a group is hard, and that is super apparent throughout all three nights. And the music industry certainly did all it could to make it harder.
From the very beginning, there were outside forces threatening to pull them apart. Family pressures were also very real. And while their mamas—played by Lisa Nicole Carson, La La Anthony, Monica Calhoun, Yvette Nicole Brown and Sandi McCree with Bre-z (Freda Gatz from Empire) as Peanut Bell—appear briefly, their presence is impactful. You also feel the frustration of the young boys busting their asses to entertain and being cheated out of nearly every cent. In actuality, New Edition shouldn’t still be here, and we see exactly why.
Now, the members of New Edition were far from saints, especially when it came to the ladies. But how many teenage boys and young men wouldn’t take advantage of young girls and grown women willing to be down and get down? There is certainly a healthy dose of the rock-star life. There is also the very real journey of going from “Boys to Men,” to borrow from one of their most well-known songs. In actuality, six hours is and isn’t enough. Just as the group itself spawns many musical incarnations from Bobby Brown to Johnny Gill and, of course, Bell Biv Devoe, so should The New Edition Story.
For decades, so many have begged BET to lead, and with this miniseries, it is doing just that. From the hairstyles to the outfits and, most importantly, the choreography, mannerisms and nicknames, the miniseries captures the chemistry and goes back in time the right way, the respectful way. Having clearance to use all the right songs is also huge.
It’s abundantly clear that this was a passion project for all, including Executive Producer Jesse Collins—who, Ronnie DeVoe shared at the Atlanta screening, began this process with New Edition back in 2005—Director Chris Robinson and every single actor involved.
“When your story is told, nine times out of 10, the person isn’t here to tell it,” DeVoe said, surrounded by family, friends and much of the cast. “So, to be here, all six of us, including Brooke Payne, all seven of us, to see our story told, it’s just overwhelming.”
New Edition’s significance was not lost on any of the cast, Woody McClain, who plays Bobby, assured everyone gathered at the Atlanta screening.
“I think it’s a big deal of responsibility because we’re introducing this legendary group to the younger generation coming up. So we have to introduce to them the right way or they won’t go back and watch the old videos or they won’t go back and listen to the old music, and I think that’s huge because we could mess up a whole legacy.”
And, thankfully, there will be no moments like Lifetime’s Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B movie.
Don’t expect mainstream media to understand our collective euphoria or the ensuing social media takeover. With The New Edition Story, BET has set the bar mighty high for us. To pull this off takes people who lived this life and have known these guys.
Straight Outta Compton changed the game, and BET just elevated it.
The New Edition Story airs on BET Tuesday through Thursday at 9 p.m.