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
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- Nzingha Stewart - Wikipedia ›
- 'Tall Girl' Review: Struggling to Rise Above - The New York Times ›
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Kiah McBride writes technical content by day and uses storytelling to pen real and raw personal development pieces on her blog Write On Kiah. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @writeonkiah.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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xoNecole's New Visual Hair Story "The Root Of It" Is Here
For Black women, hair isn't just hair. It's our mouthpiece and our magic.
xoNecole is proud to introduce "The Root Of It," a visual hair story in partnership with SheaMoisture. For this cozy and no-frills experience, we tasked world-renowned hairstylist Ursula Stephen with creating hair transformations on three of our favorite influencers: Jasmine Moses (@slimreshae), Mel Mitchell (@itsmelmitch) and Tiffany Renee (@iam.tiffany.renee). Hosted by former beauty editor turned content creator Blake Newby, "The Root Of It" takes us on a journey of hair as the ultimate expression. We pay homage to the innovators in Black hair that have birthed a generation of styles. Most importantly, we get a little scalp education, learning the basics of how to care for our crowns by focusing first on the scalp.
Watch episode one of "The Root Of It" now, and stay tuned for episodes two and three!