(RNS) — Filmmaker Ava DuVernay has made a career of taking people into unfamiliar — even uncomfortable — places. She took viewers on an adventure through space and time in her film adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time” and, in “Selma,” on a journey through history into the heart of the civil rights movement.
Now, she’s inviting people inside the homes of those who may seem very different from them.
That’s the concept of DuVernay’s first unscripted TV series “Home Sweet Home,” premiering Friday (Oct. 15) on NBC, in which 16 families from different religious, racial and economic backgrounds or sexual orientations trade homes for a week.
“I really, really wanted to share what is in the show, which is: celebrate the differences. This isn’t a ‘Kumbaya,’ ‘all hold hands and love each other’ moment. This is ‘understand my life so that we can have a better time living in this world together,’” said DuVernay, executive producer of the reality show.
About one in five Americans say they seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their race or ethnicity (21%) or religion (22%), according to a survey published in 2019 by PRRI. This lack of exposure is at the heart of what DuVernay said she hopes to address with the show.
“Fear keeps us from interacting with other people. That’s the goal here,” the producer said. “And so, while it was hard to create, I’m happy that we did it.”
The first episode of “Home Sweet Home,” which DuVernay said prioritizes curiosity over conflict, features the Wixx family — a “super queer” Black couple with three children, according to Yndia Wixx, a 40-year-old freelance photographer. They trade homes with the Vasilious, who describe themselves as a “proud Greek Orthodox family.”
In a letter welcoming the Wixx family to their home, the Vasiliou family writes, “One of the most important things to our family is our faith. … Our church not only serves as a place of worship, but also as a cultural hub where our traditions are kept alive.”
By the time they read it, Yndia Wixx has already picked up on the crosses and icons hanging throughout the Vasilious’ home.
“They don’t have a Black Jesus,” she says. “We’ll see about getting them a Black Jesus.”
Meanwhile, the Vasiliou family attempts to embrace the Wixx family’s approach to spirituality, which begins with meditation every morning, according to the handbook they’ve left behind.
Some of the four Vasiliou children, ranging in age from 9 to 15, erupt into giggles as the family sits in a circle on the floor, each holding a crystal as they take deep breaths and listen to a guided meditation on gratitude.
“If we were in church, would this be appropriate? No,” says stay-at-home mom Maria Vasiliou, 42. “Maybe this is their church.”
In the end, the two families share a meal together, and Yndia Wixx declares, “We’re family now!”
They discuss their similarities and differences and what they learned from the experience: The Wixx family wants to share more of their culture with their children, and the Vasiliou family learns love is what makes a family.
“I think no matter what culture you are, no matter what religion you are, we are all humans and we should all love each other,” says Nick Vasiliou, 44, who is president of a nutrition company.
DuVernay said her own beliefs and stereotypes about people of other faiths were challenged in filming the series.
In particular, she told journalists, she was “scared” while filming an episode featuring a “blond-haired, blue-eyed Mormon family from Orange County.”
“I might not go to that, because I know they don’t like Black people,” DuVernay, who is Black, said she thought at the time.
Later, seeing the family members’ curiosity about the family with whom they’d swapped homes, the producer questioned her own stereotypes about them, which she said are “sometimes rooted in a truth that has been distorted.”
In 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reversed its policies preventing men of African descent from holding the priesthood and all church members of African descent from entering the temple. It recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of that reversal, along with the contributions Black church members have made to LDS thought, art, music and leadership.
Other episodes of “Home Sweet Home” feature Sikh, Jewish, Hindu and atheist families.
DuVernay hopes the reality show will be a similar learning tool for viewers — not to mention, fun to watch.
“We’re really challenging people to go beyond what they think they know and ask themselves, ‘Why do you even think that?’ and, ‘Do you know what you think you know?’ and challenge the reasons why you believe what you believe,” she said.