What The Site Of The Democratic Debate Says About Georgia, Role Of Black Voters

Nov 20, 2019
Originally published on November 20, 2019 10:55 am

Atlanta's Tyler Perry Studios has been home to Wakanda, the White House and The Walking Dead, but on Wednesday night it will host its most topical production yet: the next Democratic presidential primary debate, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.

With less than three months before voters begin casting ballots, 10 candidates will walk out onto a sound stage named for Oprah Winfrey.

The decision to stage the debate at Tyler Perry Studios is a sign of the political and economic power of Georgia's growing film industry, an implicit acknowledgment of the space that black voters occupy in the primary electorate and a nod to the state's potential battleground status in 2020.

"It shows how Georgia is ready to present on a national stage," said Kalena Boller, a retired location manager who spent 15 years scouting out locations around Atlanta to film movies, music videos and television shows.

"What's more Southern than that?"

The big, thick gates and tall fences outside the studios in southwest Atlanta resemble a fortress, which the facility once was in its past incarnation as a U.S. Army base, Fort McPherson, which operated from 1885 to 2011.

The entrance to Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, where Wednesday's Democratic presidential primary debate will be held.
Raymond Boyd / Getty Images

Filmmaker and producer Tyler Perry purchased part of the property in 2015 from the city of Atlanta to build his eponymous production facilities, larger than any studio in Los Angeles. He's the only African American to own a major film studio.

"It's 330 acres and 12 sound stages," Tyler Perry told late-night host Jimmy Kimmel after the studio's grand opening last month. "And I dedicated them all this weekend to people who paved the way and motivated and inspired me, like Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, Cicely Tyson, Will Smith, Halle Berry ... ."

Standing in the parking lot of a recent development up the street from Tyler Perry Studios, Boller, the former location scout, said Georgia's booming film economy is increasingly part of the political conversation too.

This year, several Hollywood actors and production companies called for a boycott of the state after Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill tightening restrictions on abortion.

Shortly before a federal judge temporarily blocked the law from taking effect, Perry voiced his support for film industry workers in the state and said he couldn't just "up and leave" the place he called home.

"I mean, what's more Southern than that?" asked Boller of Perry's decision to stay.

Boller said the choice to locate this debate at Tyler Perry Studios shows where the Democratic Party is headed.

"What it's specifically showing is that you cannot look away from the black Democratic vote," she said. "You cannot discredit and you cannot ignore how much of a contribution we're making to the country as a whole."

Battleground Georgia

Donald Trump won Georgia in 2016 by only a 5-point margin, far tighter than past Republican candidates. In 2018, Kemp squeaked out an even narrower victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial race.

In a sign that both parties are preparing to fight for Georgia's 16 electoral votes in 2020, President Trump held a Black Voices for Trump coalition launch in Atlanta this month, while Democratic candidates have made regular stops at historically black colleges in the state, especially this week ahead of the debate.

Georgia will also be a major Senate battleground in 2020, with first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue up for reelection and a special election to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican who's resigning at the end of 2019 for health reasons.

"There is this opportunity before Democrats in Georgia that we've not seen and likely won't see again for many years," said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who lobbied the Democratic National Committee to bring the debate to the city.

"Atlanta is really this crown jewel of the South in so many ways — the diversity that it reflects, our economy and the metro area and just really the prominence of so many African American leaders and African American women who are leading cities throughout the South," said Bottoms.

The debates aren't the only big-ticket item coming to the studios in this corner of southwest Atlanta. Several movies are actively filming there, and the Miss Universe pageant, once owned by Trump, is coming in December.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls take the debate stage in Atlanta tonight. They'll do so at the largest black-owned film studio in the country. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler explains what the location says about the 2020 vote.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: The soundstages at Tyler Perry Studios have been home to Wakanda, the White House and "The Walking Dead." Acclaimed filmmaker and producer Tyler Perry bought the expansive property near the airport in 2015. Thanks to the success of his "Madea" movie series and other projects, Tyler Perry is the only black owner of a major film studio and has the largest production studio in the country. Just how big is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

TYLER PERRY: Three hundred and thirty acres and 12 soundstages. And I dedicated them all this weekend to people that have paved the way, that motivated, inspired me.

FOWLER: That's Perry speaking last month to Jimmy Kimmel after the studio's official grand opening. When you drive past the outside of Tyler Perry Studios, it kind of reminds you of a fortress. That's because it was. From 1885 to 2011, Fort McPherson served as a U.S. Army base until its closure, which left a void in the community. But now the film industry is taking off in metro Atlanta, and the region's economy and politics are shifting along with it. Kalena Boller says she's not surprised the growth has attracted a high-profile presidential debate.

KALENA BOLLER: They're saying, look - pay attention to the South. Pay attention to Georgia. Pay attention to these so-called flyover states that you used to think were just pushed to the side.

FOWLER: Boller is a recently retired location manager who spent 15 years scouting out Atlanta locations to film movies, music videos and TV commercials. The film industry has taken an increasingly prominent role in politics here. Earlier this year, several Hollywood actors and production companies called for a boycott of the state after its Republican governor signed a bill tightening restrictions on abortion. But Perry made headlines when he said he couldn't just up and leave the place he called home.

Last year's tight gubernatorial election in Georgia showed that Democrats have an opening in a fast-growing state. Boller says that has to include voices like Perry's.

BOLLER: You cannot look away from the black Democratic vote. You cannot discredit and you cannot ignore how much of a contribution we're making to the country as a whole.

FOWLER: The debate is being held in a predominantly black neighborhood in a predominantly black city at a black-owned venue with the support of a black female mayor and state party chair. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lobbied the Democratic National Committee to bring the debate to the city.

KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS: Atlanta is really this crown jewel of the South in so many ways - the diversity that it reflects, our economy in the metro area.

FOWLER: She said it was a no-brainer to bring presidential candidates here in what's shaping up to be a huge political year in the state.

LANCE BOTTOMS: There is this opportunity before Democrats in Georgia that we've not seen and likely won't see again for many years, and that's the opportunity to elect two senators as well as cast a vote for a presidential candidate.

FOWLER: The debate is not the only big-ticket item coming to the studios in this corner of the city. Several movies are actively filming there, and the Miss Universe pageant, once owned by President Trump, is coming in December.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Fowler in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "WAKANDA ORIGINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.