Starz series ‘BMF’ is inspired by notorious Detroit drug bosses

Although it has been the setting for a few TV crime dramas that strived to feel authentic, Detroit is still waiting for its version of “The Sopranos.”

That wait may be short. A new series from Starz captures a slice of Motor City life as vividly as the HBO mob classic interprets Tony Soprano’s New Jersey.

“BMF” kicks off an eight-episode season at 9 p.m. Sunday on the premium cable network. It is inspired by the real-life story of Demetrius Flenory and Terry Flenory — aka Big Meech and Southwest T — two brothers from Detroit who built a national empire in the drug trade that was brought down by law enforcement in the mid-2000s

The show’s narrative begins in 1980s Detroit, back when the city was known as a murder capital and the crack cocaine epidemic was surging.

As Big Meech and T try to save their family’s home from foreclosure, they take a dangerous path as small-time drug dealers. Raised by a father and mother whose hard work barely keeps them financially afloat, they know that most legitimate routes out of poverty are closed to young Black men like them. 

“BMF” isn’t just a crime drama, however. It’s about the bonds between parents and children, the loyalty and betrayal that occur between friends, the pain of disappointing loved ones and the struggle of trying to succeed in a society that doesn’t value you as a person.

For Randy Huggins, the show’s executive producer, creator and writer, “BMF” represents a chance to depict a place he loves — “I bleed Detroit,” he says — in all of its complexities.

“I wanted to be on ‘Low Winter Sun’ and I wanted to be on ‘Detroit 1-8-7,’ and neither one of those shows hired me,” says Huggins of the AMC and ABC series that were set and shot here during the years of Michigan’s film incentives.

“Now I’m coming back with my own show to tell you exactly how it’s done and how Detroiters act and how we talk and what we eat,” he says, a promise that he largely upholds.

Indeed, “BMF,” which stands for “Black Mafia Family,” is impressive in its attention to the smallest details about the city. Plenty of TV shows have name-dropped Detroit. “BMF” is probably the first one to have a character insist that “coneys belong downtown,” while “loose burgers are for the ‘hood.”

Or to depict a birthday party at the hot spot Club Taboo. Or to have someone complain while shopping at Lord & Taylor: “Why can’t we just go to Northland?” Or to mention the city of Ecorse as often as some procedurals refer to New York or Los Angeles.

And how’s this for authenticity? The fictional version of Demetrius Flenory is portrayed by newcomer Demetrius Flenory Jr., the real Big Meech’s 21-year-old son.  

“This is my family’s story, at the end of the day. You only get one shot for this. I’ve got to live with this for the rest of my life,” says Flenory Jr., who has been cast on the second season of HBO’s “Euphoria,” during a Zoom interview.

Demetrius Flenory Jr. and Da'Vinchi play Detroit brothers Demetrius Flenory and Terry Flenory in Starz series

In real life, the Flenory brothers became famous after their base moved from Detroit to Atlanta, where BMF’s lavish style attracted media attention.

 According to the coverage of its rise and fall, BMF earned nearly $300 million in profits and had hundreds of people involved in distributing drugs in nearly a dozen cities across the country.

At one point, Demetrius Flenory expanded his scope by becoming co-owner of Juice magazine and starting a rap music company called BMF Entertainment that was credited with helping Jeezy early in his career (back when he was known as Young Jeezy). 

The real saga had the conflict and emotion of “Power,” the 2014-20 Starz hit about a drug dealer pursuing a fresh start as a legit club owner. So it’s not surprising that “BMF” comes from rap superstar and entertainment mogul Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson, a key figure in the expanding “Power” franchise on Starz.

Jackson, who executive-produced and co-starred in the original “Power,” turned to Huggins, a writer for that show, to be in charge of the making of “BMF.” For Huggins, a Detroit native, it was a dream assignment.

During the research process, Huggins, a veteran TV writer and producer whose credits include “The Unit,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Star,”  got to know Demetrius Flenory through brief phone calls and hours-long visits to the Oregon prison where he’s serving a 30-year sentence for drug trafficking. (The sentence was recently was reduced by three years.)

Since he wasn’t allowed to bring a pen or paper to his meetings with Big Meech, Huggins says, “I would just run to my car at the end and start scribbling down everything I could remember.”

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Huggins met in Detroit with Demetrius’ sister, Nicole Flenory, and best friend Roland West. They showed him around the southwest Detroit, Ecorse and River Rouge neighborhoods of their youth, a region surrounded by crowded highways and industrial plants that has one of the highest pollution levels in the state.

”It was an eye-opening experience. It helped me shape why these guys made the decisions they did,” he says.

Huggins also spoke with the matriarch of the family, Lucille Flenory, and with Terry Flenory, who also was sentenced to 30 years, but was let out of prison in spring 2020 to serve time under house confinement because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the difficult parts of his job was balancing the perspectives of the brothers, whom he describes as estranged, yet loyal to each other in their separate conversations with him.

“What’s really interesting is that neither one of them ever talks down about the other to me. That’s how you know they’re brothers. … Neither one of them ever gives me any negative material about the other,” says Huggins.

While Huggins wanted to listen to what the family had to say, his responsibility was to craft a compelling, entertaining narrative. As the show’s disclaimer puts it, the stories are based loosely on the truth. 

Michole Briana White plays Lucille Flenory, the mother of Demetrius and Terry Flenory, in the Starz series

“BMF” has a large cast that includes Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give”) and Michole Briana White as the Flenory parents, Steve Harris (“The Practice,” “Friday Night Lights”) as a cop who is friends with Demetrius, Wood Harris (“The Wire”) as an early boss of the brothers, La La Anthony as the wife of a drug dealer and Detroit rapper Arkeisha (Kash Doll) Knight as a romantic interest of Meech.

Two rap icons also turn up during the first season. Snoop Dogg has a brief role as the Flenory family’s pastor, while Eminem does a cameo in episode seven as Richard Wershe Jr. Jackson directed that episode, which used de-aging visual effects to make Slim Shady resemble the teenage drug dealer and FBI informant whose life was the subject of the 2018 movie “White Boy Rick.”

Does Eminem look as young as he did when 50 Cent first met his good friend? “A little younger, a little younger,” he says playfully.

In the two lead roles, Da’Vinchi (“All American,” “Grown-ish”) brings a smoldering intensity to Terry, the quieter, more strategic brother, while Flenory Jr. has the smooth confidence of the bolder, brasher Demetrius Sr.

Jackson gets the credit for putting Flenory Jr., who is nicknamed Lil Meech, for the part and for giving him the time and support to prepare for the challenge.

“50 Cent was the one that put me in acting classes. … He made sure I was ready. He always believed in me,” says Flenory Jr., describing how Jackson relocate him from Miami to Los Angeles, where he studied acting five days a week with Tasha Smith, who directed several “BMF” episodes.

Demetrius Flenory Jr. and Da'Vinchi in a scene from

Flenory Jr., who grew up in Miami, was just a child when his dad went to prison in 2008. He says his memories are of having “a cool dad” who spent a lot of time with him.

“He would take me everywhere, video shoots, everywhere that was fun. He would drive me in all these fast cars. I just loved being with him. I still remember a lot about being with him. I just didn’t know who he was until I got older.”

Flenory Jr. visited Detroit often to see his grandmother, aunt and cousins. But while emphasizing that his family is close and loving, he admits that it wasn’t always easy to grow up with an incarcerated father.

“I was so young, I didn’t understand the depth of the whole situation, but I just (saw) it made my mama a wreck. I remember watching her cry so many nights and it made me cry. … It made me stronger because I had to grow up faster. I had to man up faster and be able to take care of my mom.”

Da’Vinchi says he and Flenory Jr. established a rapport during filming and drew on each other’s strengths.

A scene from the new Starz drama

“Meech being directly tied with the family, he gave me all the inside scoop that I needed. I was able to trust his advice. He was able to trust some of the advice I gave him because I’ve been in the game a little longer than he has,” he says. “It was like the perfect situation to mesh. It was like the perfect point guard, shooting guard situation.”

Although filming primarily took place in Atlanta, the cast and crew traveled to the Motor City for seven days of shooting.

As Jackson says of the trip, “You have to be in Detroit to capture Detroit.”

Huggins filmed at familiar spots like Belle Isle at night because “our city lit up is one of the most beautiful things ever.” He also shot at the home where Demetrius and Terry grew up, which allowed Da’Vinchi and Little Meech to literally walk in the footsteps of their characters during those scenes.

“Imagine Lucille Flenory watching her life play out right in front of her on her street,”  says Huggins. “Yeah, it’s tough that she can’t see her son right now, but seeing her son’s son come down the street and get out of the car and portray his father had to be one of the most mind-blowing experiences ever.”

Huggins scrutinized the Atlanta footage to make sure it looked as much like Detroit as possible.

“Everybody would be like, ‘Oh, it’s (a) beautiful (location). You’re going to love it.’ And I was like: “That’s not Detroit.  You see that hill? There are no hills in Detroit. It’s the flattest place.’” He adds, “I was very stringent about the locations we were choosing, and the fashions and the music.”

Huggins and the writers originally wanted Jackson to play the pastor in “BMF,” but says 50 Cent told them, “I’ve got somebody better … Snoop.”

After seeing Snoop work, Huggins agreed with Jackson. “When Snoop came on set, he just lit it on fire. … He just brought it, every day he came to set. He knew all of his lines. He signed autographs and took pictures with everybody till the last person had their picture or autograph.”

He adds: “We already had a fun, festive environment, but when Snoop came, he turned it into a barbecue. It was like a family reunion for real.”

Snoop Dogg plays a pastor in

In the big picture, says Huggins, “BMF” will be relatable to viewers for its themes of family and the American dream.

“Whatever you feel about what Demetrius Flenory did, his actions gave his son this opportunity that otherwise would not have been afforded to him. What is more of the American Dream than that?” he says.

Flenory Jr. says people don’t know who his father really is. “They only know the glitz and the glamour of what they’ve heard. … My dad is a loving family man and just wanted to see everybody win, wanted to take his family out of poverty because he had no other choice.”

But “BMF” doesn’t turn the Flenory brothers into heroes. The episodes don’t skimp on the brutal, sometimes lethal violence of the drug world. By episode six, there’s a plot twist involving their battle with a rival that leads to tragic, unintended consequences.

“Ultimately, what I’m trying to do with this series is make sure people understand these guys, they’re not monsters. They’re human beings who made a decision, whether you agree with it or not,” says Huggins. 

While Huggins hopes that the Flenorys are happy with his effort, he wants more than anything to do right by his hometown.

“I hope the entire city of Detroit is happy,” he says. “I really made this for our city.”

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture writer Julie Hinds at [email protected]

‘BMF’

Series premiere

9 p.m. Sun.

Starz

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