Nzingha Stewart has never been one to back down from a challenge. At the start of her career, the challenge was getting behind the camera back when female directors were an anomaly, where she shot over a hundred music videos such as Common's "The Light," Sunshine Anderson's "Heard It All Before," and Nivea's "Don't Mess With My Man". She then transitioned into the television world, adding shows like Grey's Anatomy and Scandal to her carefully crafted resume. And when Hollywood hesitated to open up their doors, she burst through them by writing and directing her own TV films With This Ring (Regina Hall, Jill Scott and Eve) and Love By the 10th Date (Meagan Good, Andra Fuller, and Keri Hilson).
For Nzingha, being a black woman isn't a limitation; it's an opportunity.
While the entertainment industry may try to put directors of color in a box, women like Nzingha think outside of them—leaving a noteworthy trail of creative clips for future filmmakers to follow. Though the ethnic name that she adopted while on a trip to Senegal may sometimes cause the industry to turn a blind eye to her talents, Nzingha refuses to play Stevie Wonder along with them. Instead, she continues to prove that black women can tell narratives beyond that of their own. Her latest feature film, Tall Girl (Netflix), tells the story of a teenage girl who overcomes her insecurities and stands tall in who she is, a theme that all people can relate to.
In this xoChat, the director shares how she overcame feeling uncomfortable in her own skin, why she'd rather do good work than try to change people's minds, and the importance of standing firm in your vision, even in the midst of opposition.
xoNecole: What drew you to the script for Netflix’s ‘Tall Girl’?
Nzingha Stewart: There's a kind of sweetness and pain of adolescence. When I was the age of watching John Hughes movies, I felt like they spoke to me because they were so honest and allowed kids to have this real feel of vulnerability. I wanted to make that movie for this generation. I wanted to be able to talk to them like your feelings at this age and your insecurities, all of that is valid and it's beautiful.
Courtesy of Netflix
Was there ever a moment where you felt uncomfortable in your own skin?
Oh my God, every single day (laughs). I'm a pretty shy person; even small talk is so uncomfortable. I get painfully shy sometimes and have to stay in my head and continually have a running dialogue like, "It's okay; it's just a person. Just say, 'How are you?' back." I completely relate to that. Jodi doesn't necessarily have painful shyness, but she does have insecurities, and there's a beautiful scene in the movie where she says, "Sometimes you just don't want to be seen." For me, it might be a part of why I'm so shy, because I'm afraid that I'll say something crazy or embarrass myself, and I think that character has a similar thing. She just doesn't want to be seen.
Where did you grow up, and how did it influence your style of writing and directing?
I'm from Brooklyn, New York originally, and then moved to Atlanta for all of my high school years. When I was in New York I went to the United Nations International School (UNIS). At UNIS, every kind of person on earth was represented there. It was like you're a minority if you're American. So, I do feel like I grew up at an early age just learning all people have an interesting story, and they don't have to look like you; they don't have to have the same story as yours, but there are things that we can all relate to. Like with Tall Girl, maybe I'm not 6'2'', but I do relate to the insecurity, and it really is just lovely when you can connect over just having a shared experience.
You started your career creating music videos for artists such as Common, Eve, Jay-Z, and 50 Cent, and then transitioned into commercials and television and film. What made you focus on music videos at the beginning of your career?
I loved music videos (laughs). I was one of those kids who came home super early after school, and writing felt like something where if you didn't have any money and you were a black girl, you could do that without anything else. I wasn't from one of those families where we had a film camera and a projector. If you get this McDonald's meal on Sunday, feel blessed. It felt like writing was something I could at least control; I didn't have an excuse that I didn't have this or that.
So I could write, but I always felt like my heart was in the visual image. When I got to New York, it would be somebody who wanted to rap who had some money—probably not from legal sources—but wanted to rap, so I got to build a reel of just local rappers. Building that kind of reel got me other work and got me the video with Common, which became a hit, and then led to everything else.
At that time in your career, what was it like for black women music video directors?
Here's what's interesting. Most people weren't used to seeing black women on set as a director. However, because I was in music videos, it was a different experience than being in Hollywood and feature films because I was working with rappers, so I was working with black men. They had grown up a lot of the time with single moms—where their mom may have only had $5, but you were going to eat, clothes were going to be clean, and stuff was going to be in order. So, there was a difference when I would work with them because they believed that I could do it. There wasn't a doubt. The fights weren't patronizing; they were just fights. There was a respect there. But when I started taking meetings in Hollywood, there wasn't that belief that I could do it in the way that there was in a Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Kanye who saw their mom put things together.
Courtesy of Netflix
"When I started taking meetings in Hollywood, there wasn't that belief that I could do it in the way that there was in a Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Kanye who saw their mom put things together."
How did you overcome those doubts from people?
I don't think you can change their mind; I think you have to change your mind. There's something very real [about] just staring down the universe and being like I'm going to stand here and get my way. I don't care what it looks like right now; I'm going to do this. I don't care how many times I get knocked down, I'm just going to stay here until the universe is finally just like, 'Fine,' and you start to see things happen.
But it's very hard to change people's mind. There's no incentive for them to change their minds because what if you do mess up? What if they're right? What proof do you have that you're any different than anybody else? So, you have to change your mind and say, "I know I'm this good and I'm not moving until everything else falls in line."
"You have to change your mind and say, 'I know I'm this good and I'm not moving until everything else falls in line.'"
In an interview you said you haven’t always protected your vision, especially very early in your episodic career. Can you speak to how you learned to stay true to your vision without coming across as the “difficult black woman”? Is that even something that comes up in the TV/Film world?
It definitely does. I mean, it came up in Tall Girl. You have to know the material so well from the inside-out that you know when it's right to fight for something. You almost have to remind yourself, 'If I fight for this I might be seen as difficult, if I don't I might be seen as not good, because I know later on in the edit, I'm going to need that.' So I would rather fight and be seen as difficult, than to not fight and to be seen as a hack.
Was there something in particular that you had to fight for in ‘Tall Girl’?
In Tall Girl, there was a scene at the end where I just went home feeling like we didn't get it, and I know no one is going to want to spend the money to do this again, but I know in my gut that we didn't get it. So, I went to the producers and I went to Netflix. Luckily, they were like if you really feel that way we trust you and we can reshoot the scene, and they gave me everything I needed to make it happen again. Which, you never want to reshoot something, but I'm so happy seeing the finished result that I listened to that inner voice.
Television is different because then you really cannot be difficult, black or otherwise. You have to realize that in TV, the writer is the boss, and they're not hiring you so much for your vision as for your eye. They want you to protect their vision, so you have to go into it differently.
Courtesy of Netflix
"I would rather fight and be seen as difficult, than to not fight and to be seen as a hack."
Where do you get your creative inspiration?
Keep the tank full in terms of making time when you're busy to watch as much as you can watch, go to exhibits—just be around creativity. Even a trip to the gallery can spark something. Understand that part of your work is creatively refilling. Going to a concert, going to a museum, checking out a photography show, all of those things are part of the work.
For more of Nzingha, follow her on Instagram. Tall Girl is now streaming on Netflix.
Featured image by Getty Images