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These Utah filmmakers are tackling racism with a new TV show

Two Utah filmmakers are creating a new TV series called “Off the Beaten Path,” which aims to improve people’s perception of the state and how much it values diversity and inclusion.

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From left: Actor Khleo Thomas of “Holes,” Utah Jazz player Royce O’Neale, director Danor Gerald and producer Lonzo Liggins. Gerald and Liggins interviewed Thomas and O’Neal on the first pilot episode of their “Off the Beaten Path” TV show.

Jeremy Kartchner

SALT LAKE CITY — African Americans make up just 1.5% of Utah’s population, according to last year’s estimates from the United States Census Bureau.

Two Utah filmmakers hope to increase that number with a new TV series called “Off the Beaten Path,” which aims to improve people’s perception of the state and how much it values diversity and inclusion, according to director Danor Gerald.

“We’re working to help increase the ability for companies to recruit and retain diverse talent into their workplace in Utah, as well as to just stimulate tourism and interest in the state and all the fun things that there are to do that are off the beaten path that people aren’t aware of,” Gerald said.

Producer Lonzo Liggins said the African American population in Utah hasn’t grown beyond 2% for the last 60-70 years, and there are many arguments as to why that is.

“Some people believe it’s just Utah is not a welcoming place. Some people think it’s because of the 1978 decision with the church, and they feel the church never fully apologized for that, so they feel like that’s the reason why African Americans haven’t moved here,” Liggins said, referring to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ reversal of a policy that excluded Black men from being ordained to the priesthood.

However, there are also Black people, both within and outside the church, who live in the Beehive State and “are in love with Utah,” according to Liggins.

“Instead of highlighting people who are unhappy here, we wanted to see about the people who were really content with Utah and why it is that they’ve lived here for 30-40 years and they’ve set their roots down and said that Utah is an amazing and wonderful place and they don’t want to leave,” Liggins said.

The filmmakers also plan to bring in well-known people from outside the state to be on the show. They hope to feature a variety of local and nonlocal guests such as Utah Jazz basketball players, actress Tia Mowry of “Sister, Sister,” Lucidworks CEO Will Hayes and food critic Daym Drops.

“We’ll bring them out here and show them some of the things that are here to do in Utah and show them having a good time in Utah,” Liggins said. “Then it opens the door for people to be able to watch and move here or to have maybe a different concept about what Utah is all about.”

The producer hopes the project will get “to the core of why it is that people don’t want to move here, if it’s stereotypes, if it’s misconceptions or if it’s just people come here and they just don’t like it.”

“There seems to be this ongoing narrative that Utah is not a place that you want to go and live if you’re a minority, and I don’t think that that’s rooted in reality, I think it’s rooted in misconception,” Liggins said.

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Producer Lonzo Liggins, center, and director Danor Gerald, center right, interview Utah principal and community leader Michelle Love-Day, center left, on “Off the Beaten Path.”

Jeremy Kartchner

Liggins and Gerald have had both good and bad experiences living in Utah as African Americans.

But the state’s culture has improved over time, according to Liggins, a Utah native.

“It’s not quite where it needs to be, but it’s changed quite a bit from when I was a kid, and I think that’s proof that there’s a lot of good changes that are happening I think both within the church and outside of the church,” Liggins said. “I think the show will reflect how much it’s changed.”

Gerald said he has also lived in Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Arkansas and Florida, which brings with it “a certain perspective on the broader U.S. experience and culture.”

“I’m using that and the time that I have spent here to say, ‘Alright, here’s what’s going so well here. Here’s what really needs to change and be improved,’ so that we can shake off the shackles of the bad stereotypes that Utah has that have been created over the last 100 plus years,” Gerald said.

The filmmakers have their own creativity and “African American voice and perspective that can’t be replicated or duplicated,” according to Gerald.

“We need to be the voice of this because people are going to take it a lot more seriously and be a lot more believing of it coming from us,” Gerald said.

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Detective Kevin Mallory, left, shows actress Quinci Staker and director Danor Gerald how to prevent car burglaries on “Off the Beaten Path.”

Jeremy Kartchner

Gerald and Liggins met as actors on the set of “Saints and Soldiers: The Void.” They have remained good friends ever since and always thought about doing a project together, Liggins said.

“We landed on this one because we felt like it would just be a really good episode for Utah because we both love the place and we both have our roots here and we felt like it was something even prior to the Black Lives Matter movement that was really timely,” Liggins said.

Gerald said when current events like the recent Black Lives Matter protests happen in Utah, they “would want to be there and talk about that and show people the unity that exists even in the midst of quite a bit of conflict and tension.”

“It could show that a community is able to come together and invest and be a part of something that helps to start a dialogue within the community to show what it’s like to live in a place where there may be a predominantly white population, but there’s still the ability for that group to get along with that population and for there to be not only acceptance but curiosity about the plight of those people in that community,” Liggins said.

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Director Danor Gerald, left, and producer Lonzo Liggins are the creators and hosts of “Off the Beaten Path.”

Jeremy Kartchner

The idea for the series stems from a Carleton Bluford documentary Liggins worked on about the African American population in Utah called “Two Percent” that ended up falling through.

“I thought it might be a little bit different than the documentary because a series could touch on all kinds of things,” Liggins said. “We could be able to take an idea and be able to course correct if there were any issues with the content.”

The filmmakers agreed the show needed to be “a sustained effort,” according to Gerald.

“People have to hear something multiple times before it really sinks in and becomes a part of their understanding of the world, so that’s how the show evolved into what it is,” Gerald said.

Gerald and Liggins have released two pilot episodes of “Off the Beaten Path” and hope to start airing the series on TV by Sept. 1.

“As a state, we have things that other people just don’t have, and it’s more than just the beautiful scenery,” Gerald said. “We have a vision, we have direction, we have a focus that’s a part of our culture.”