The Empire of Ebony: Lisa Cortés to Direct Documentary on the Rise and Impact of the 1st Black Media Empire

A supporter holds up an issue Ebony magazine featuring Barack Obama before a speech at a campaign event billed as a town hall meeting August 19, 2008.
A supporter holds up an issue Ebony magazine featuring Barack Obama before a speech at a campaign event billed as a town hall meeting August 19, 2008.
Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images (Getty Images)

The first-ever Black media empire, Ebony, is getting its own documentary. Lisa Cortés (All In: The Fight For Democracy, The Apollo) will direct the film and Academy Award and Emmy Award winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’ (The Apollo, Life Animated) will produce via One Story Up. Cortés will also produce, as well.


Here’s what you can expect from the doc, per the press release sent to The Root:

The Empire of Ebony will take an expansive look at The Johnson Publishing Company and their titles Ebony and Jet. The film will explore two of the most influential publications in the history of American media all the way from the media empire’s beginnings as a small publishing company, started by John H. Johnson and Eunice W. Johnson with a five-hundred dollar loan, to its incredible growth into a publishing juggernaut with an unparalleled cultural impact. The film will chart the rise of Ebony and Jet and their growth into a brand with a readership base in the millions which has had an undeniable effect on American culture. This will include the important role these publications played in illuminating key moments in American history that went unreported by the mainstream media.

With access to Ebony and Jet’s extensive archives, the film will also chronicle the media empire’s revolutionary effect on not just the media landscape but American culture, consumerism, and history. The Empire of Ebony will provide a powerful testament to the visionary entrepreneurship of the Ebony media empire and a dynamic story of Black struggle and triumph in America.

“Growing up, Ebony and Jet were in every Black household and they were everything! You could start reading at home and finish at the beauty parlor, barbershop, or at your Auntie’s house,” Cortés said in a statement. “In the pages of these magazines I saw Black people who inspired me to dream and create. I’m so excited to be working with the incredible team at One Story Up anchored by Roger Ross Williams, and honored that Linda Johnson Rice has entrusted me to tell this story for the first time. Through a visual archive spanning seventy-five years of the most important moments of African American life, The Empire of Ebony will be a revelatory story of entrepreneurship, innovation and Black love.”

The celebration of Ebony’s legacy has also been documented in literary form by Lavaille Lavette called Ebony: Covering Black America, which is described as “a celebration of the treasure trove of the magazine’s rich history, glamorous covers, groundbreaking cultural impact, and authentic coverage of Black American life from the magazine’s inception to the present.”

Of course we can’t help but wonder if the documentary will explore “the fall” along with “the rise.” In fact, it has been quite a rollercoaster ride of rises, falls and rebirths with the magazine being recently purchased for $14 million by retired Milwaukee Bucks forward Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman and the very recent appointment of its new CEO, Michele Gee.


It looks like this is the time to do a retrospective of our legacy Black publications because it was announced last October that HBO Max would be developing a drama series based on Essence Magazine’s origin story.


“The lasting impact Ebony and Jet has is undeniable. With these publications, the Johnson Publishing Company changed the entire American press landscape and completely revolutionized the way Black Americans were able to see themselves in popular culture, media, and advertising,” Williams said in a statement. “We’ve seen numerous documentaries about other publications like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and The New York Times, but have yet to see something about such dynamic magazines like Ebony and Jet. I’m thrilled to be able to collaborate with Lisa, Linda, and Brenda through One Story Up to bring this project to life and shine a well deserved spotlight on this influential and powerful media empire.”

The Empire of Ebony, which is currently in production, is produced by Alyse Shorland and executive produced by Linda Johnson Rice, chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, and One Story Up’s Emmy Award-Winning Geoff Martz (The Innocence Files, Between The World And Me), Brenda Robinson, Regina K. Scully, Patty Quillin, Nion McEvoy, Leslie Berriman, Julie Parker Benello, Chaz Ebert, Jason Delane Lee, Yvonne Huff Lee, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Charles D. King, Poppy Hanks, Steve Cohen, Paula Froehle, Jim Swartz, Susan Swartz, David Fialkow, Nina Fialkow, Barbara Dobkin, Eric Dobkin and Katrina vanden Heuvel. Co-Executive Producers include Malcolm Jenkins, Melony & Adam Lewis, Marni Grossman and Robert Pasin. Additional producers include Impact Partners, in association with Chicago Media Project, MACRO, The Lagralane Group and Artemis Rising Foundation.

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.