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Hollywood Director Nzingha Stewart Shares Why It’s Important To Stand Tall In Your Vision

For Nzingha, being a black woman isn't a limitation; it's an opportunity.

BOSS UP

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

You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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