Part2′s David Shadrack Smith on mixing archive and attitude in “Story of Cool”

American cable news network MSNBC is gearing up to premiere a three-part docuseries that explores the evolution of “cool” throughout the decades when it debuts the LL Cool J-fronted Story of Cool. Launching ...
June 29, 2018

American cable news network MSNBC is gearing up to premiere a three-part docuseries that explores the evolution of “cool” throughout the decades when it debuts the LL Cool J-fronted Story of Cool.

Launching July 1 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, the 3 x 60-minute docuseries examines the people, places, and things that define the concept of being cool in American history.

Produced by Brooklyn-based Part2 Pictures, Getty Images and LL Cool J Inc., the three episodes will investigate three themes, says David Shadrack Smith (pictured), president of Part2 Pictures and executive producer on the series.

The first episode, “Cool in Charge,” uncovered the qualities that make certain leaders cool, while episode two, “Cool for Sale” (July 8), will dissect how cool gets “created, co-opted, packaged, sold and then turned upside down.” Episode three, “Cool Rivalries” (July 15), will seek to explore how various brands and ideas vie for the designation of cool.

“In each episode we cover the past to the present, looking at prominent figures like Muhammad Ali, and cultural shifts in our attitudes toward things like smoking, for instance,” Shadrack Smith tells realscreen. “We cover the rivalry between Soul Train and American Bandstand and also talk with Shepard Fairey about why he chose to make that iconic Obama ‘Hope’ poster.”

Story of Cool calls upon a host of famous faces to help discern the origin of “cool.” Featured interviews include rapper and actor Ice Cube; British entertainer James Corden; hip-hop mogul DMC of Run DMC; Kierna Mayo, SVP of content and brands at Interactive One; entrepreneur and TV personality Maverick Carter; and acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell, among others.

Part2′s Shadrack Smith shared more about the production company’s approach to developing the mixed vérité-archive series.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why do you think there is an appetite for programming like Story of Cool?

There’s a mystery and a universal appeal to cool. It’s a thread that runs through so many aspects of our cultural history: from who our icons are, to how we consume, to what we wear and eat. I think programming that hits this surprising nerve – this very visceral sense of what makes us tick both individually and in a shared way – will always be appealing.  It’s the story of us. It’s fun, nostalgic, provocative and eye opening.

What types of production challenges did you encounter with this project?

The hardest part was choosing what stories to tell and focusing our point of view. There were a lot of lively arguments in the office about what was considered cool and what wasn’t. And once we agreed something had enough cool factor to be considered for the episode, weaving together a narrative that connected the threads through themes and through decades was complex to put together. And finally, once we had our ideas straight, we would get a dose of reality from our amazing interviewees and we’d have to change the story again. Pinpointing something as indefinable as cool was a fluid process. We were fortunate to have LL Cool J as the unsurpassable arbiter.

How did you work in partnership with Getty Images in terms of finding archive material for the project? >What did they bring to the table? 

This series comes to life through its archival imagery. You have to see cool to believe it or dispute it. Getty made it possible to dig deep into the archives and work together to find and license unique footage. We needed the iconic moments, but we also needed the moments around those moments – shots and stills taken at the periphery of well-known historical events. We wanted the archive to tell a story, not just paper over interviews, and Getty worked alongside our amazing archival team to make sure there were some incredible moments that made it to the screen. It’s a treasure trove over there.

What was it like, sifting through decades worth of footage, to craft this docuseries?

The challenge for the archive team and the editors was to try and look at history as if it was taking place in the present tense, to see archival footage almost as if it were footage we had shot to tell the story we wanted. That meant a lot [of] digging past the first layer of archive and into less expected moments. It helped that we had very specific targets: themes and case studies that we wanted to tell. And that we were mixing the historic archive in many cases with vérité from today — something that I think is a unique blend for this series. Jumping into the record of time evokes a lot of feelings — from nostalgia to wonder to laugh-out-loud bewilderment. But I won’t deny that it was a long and arduous task to trim decades of history into these hours.

Can you tell me about how this project fits with Part2′s brand and why it’s such an important title in your production stable?

Part2′s brand centers on telling stories through a human lens. We had never applied that so fully to an historical, archival series and that was a great way to stretch ourselves. The subject lent itself to an emotional way into history, evoking feelings through shared experiences and approaching our interview subjects as people with personal stories and perspectives. Like all our productions, we strive to do something unique, whatever the genre, and also work with the most incredible people. Shaping this series alongside LL Cool J was very much in line with how Part2 works, but it also pushed us into new creative territory.

What audience does this docuseries appeal to? 

At some point most all of us have strived to be cool or admired coolness in others. It’s a universal feeling, a quest for individuals, leaders, artists, marketers, tech companies, and just about everyone else. This series asks questions, challenges ideas of cool, and leaves you both informed and seriously entertained. People will look at the case studies we chose to feature and have their own opinions: hey, that was cool, or, hey, that was so not cool. It’s a really fun series to watch for everyone — I hope families will watch it together, across generations, and debate cool as much as we have while making it.

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