As screenwriters of the Lifetime original movies “Salt-N-Pepa” and “Wendy Williams: The Movie,” Abdul Williams and Leigh Davenport, respectively, were each proposed an exciting challenge by Lifetime: They had to condense the rich and aspirant lives of cultural trailblazers to fit neatly into the television movie format.
“Salt-N-Pepa” follows a 20-year journey for the titular “first ladies of rap and hip hop,” while “Wendy Williams: The Movie” tells tales about the daytime talk show host from her childhood to the present. Although these women are icons now, their journeys to that star status couldn’t just focus on the pioneering highs. Both Davenport and Abdul Williams were committed to delivering a well-rounded narrative about complex, ambitious Black women in the entertainment industry.
Despite the fact that Salt-N-Pepa had success “before they even really knew what was happening,” says Abdul Williams, “I think there’s certain universal things about the story, which is what I loved about it. I think everyone can relate to stepping into a moment and making it your own, and making the best of it.”
“Salt-N-Pepa” stars G.G. Townson as Cheryl “Salt” James, Laila Odom as Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Monique Paul as DJ Spinderella, and depicts the come-up (and the eventual break up) of the trio — from the titular pair becoming close friends at a Sears call center in the mid-1980s, to the recruitment of 15-year-old deejay Deidra Roper (Monique Paul), motherhood and heartbreak. The movie shows what happened behind the scenes of the asymmetrical ‘dos and iconic oversized “Push It” jackets bobbing and bopping on stage, including James’ struggle with bulimia and balancing her faith in Christ with the salacious lyrics of the group’s biggest hits, and Denton’s own battles with impulsivity, self-harm and her husband Anthony “Treach” Criss’ (Jermel Howard) abuse.
Similarly, “Wendy Williams: The Movie,” starring Ciera Payton as the media personality and Morocco Omari as her ex-husband Kevin Hunter, embodies what Wendy Williams is best known for: her no-nonsense, go-getter attitude, and her transparency. Chronicling the broadcaster’s full journey from Asbury Park, N.J. to New York City, it never shies away from her successes and pitfalls, which helps super fans and uninformed viewers alike to understand how Wendy became Wendy. Davenport, who is no stranger to famous source material after working on BET’s “Boomerang,” hopes that the film will ultimately showcase how the media personality leaned into who she was as a person — flaws and all — and built an empire.
According to Davenport, Wendy Williams hopes for that, too. “She was like, ‘I was tall, and I was big, and I was loud. And everyone told me to stay in my lane and be quiet: Wendy, be proper.’ And I did my own thing.’ So, this is for anyone who’s ever felt like they were going against the grain, or felt like they didn’t fit into the mold and carved out a future for themselves, just like she did,” the writer says.
That the subjects were involved with the writing processes of the movies helped both Davenport and Abdul Williams create detailed stories, even if they may have been a bit one-sided. Abdul Williams, for example, admits that while James and Denton were invaluable resources, he also would have loved to speak with Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor (played by Cleveland Berto), the Haitian music producer that discovered the hip-hop girl group in 1985 while dating James, as well as the real Treach.
“He had cold feet, I guess. I can understand why,” Williams says of the latter. “My goal is anything that I write, biopic-wise, I would like to give you a chance to speak your piece, because otherwise, I’m going by what other people say happened.”
Davenport had Wendy Williams’ 2001 memoir, “Wendy’s Got the Heat,” to reference when working on her film, but talking with the woman one-on-one, in person and on the phone, helped fill in gaps and update the story.
“Even if you write your own memories and remember things one way, as time evolves, you come to see them differently,” Davenport says. “I had conversations with her about what, at this age, she feels and remembers about those moments in her life as opposed to when she wrote them 20 years ago.”
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Lifetime flew Davenport out to spend a weekend with Wendy Williams in Manhattan at the initial stages of the project, an experience that the writer felt was integral to creating her script. Davenport recalls that Wendy Williams was “in a raw place” at the time of their meeting because the daytime talk show host “was fresh out of announcing she was getting divorced and just out of her home that she had been with Kevin for many years.”
“You can think you have a sense of someone but until you’re sitting in their face, in their own home, really hearing them tell their own story, it completely changes the vibration,” she continues.
Like Davenport, Abdul Williams, who is best known for penning “The New Edition Story” biopic and “The Bobby Brown Story” limited series for BET, is grateful to James and Denton for being so vulnerable with him during the screenwriting process.
The women “reliving some things and opening up themselves to me, a stranger, in a way they really didn’t have to” meant a lot to Abdul Williams. “They chose to show warts and all, and they trusted me,” he says. “They would tell me if something wasn’t right, or if they wouldn’t have said it like this, or if it didn’t happen like that.”
This also included providing a thorough, nuanced explanation for why they disbanded.
“Think about who your best friend was when you were 19. And, suppose you guys have started a business together, and now you can never really quit. Whatever changes happen in your life — marriage, kids — you are forever tied to this person. It’s not easy, but they found a way,” he says.
Abdul Williams adds that his subjects’ involvement also helped him “get out of dude world” after his two aforementioned BET projects, and write female friendship and collegial dynamics in a way that felt genuine. At first, he admits he was a little intimidated when Lifetime approached him with the offer in late 2018.
“It required a different set of muscles to use. At the end of the day, a character needs to be compelling, and I was sensitive to that need to write women authentically,” he explains.
“Salt-N-Pepa” airs Jan. 23 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime. “Wendy Williams: The Movie” airs Jan. 30 at 8 p.m.