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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This article is in partnership with Sensodyne.
Our teeth are connected to so many things - our nutrition, our confidence, and our overall mood. We often take for granted how important healthy teeth are, until issues like tooth sensitivity or gum recession come to remind us. Like most things related to our bodies, prevention is the best medicine. Here are five things you can do immediately to improve your oral hygiene, prevent tooth sensitivity, and avoid dental issues down the road.
1) Go Easy On the Rough Brushing: Brushing your teeth is and always will be priority number one in the oral hygiene department. No surprises there! However, there is such a thing as applying too much pressure when brushing…and that can lead to problems over time. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles and brush in smooth, circular motions. It may seem counterintuitive, but a gentle approach to brushing is the most effective way to clean those pearly whites without wearing away enamel and exposing sensitive areas of the teeth.
2) Use A Desensitizing Toothpaste: As everyone knows, mouth pain can be highly uncomfortable; but tooth sensitivity is a whole different beast. Hot weather favorites like ice cream and popsicles have the ability to trigger tooth sensitivity, which might make you want to stay away from icy foods altogether. But as always, prevention is the best medicine here. Switching to a toothpaste like Sensodyne’s Sensitivity & Gum toothpaste specifically designed for sensitive teeth will help build a protective layer over sensitive areas of the tooth. Over time, those sharp sensations that occur with extremely cold foods will subside, and you’ll be back to treating yourself to your icy faves like this one!
3) Floss, Rinse, Brush. (And In That Order!): Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it”? Well, the same thing applies to taking care of your teeth. Even if you are flossing and brushing religiously, you could be missing out on some of the benefits simply because you aren’t doing so in the right order. Flossing is best to do before brushing because it removes food particles and plaque from places your toothbrush can’t reach. After a proper flossing sesh, it is important to rinse out your mouth with water after. Finally, you can whip out your toothbrush and get to brushing. Though many of us commonly rinse with water after brushing to remove excess toothpaste, it may not be the best thing for our teeth. That’s because fluoride, the active ingredient in toothpaste that protects your enamel, works best when it gets to sit on the teeth and continue working its magic. Rinsing with water after brushing doesn’t let the toothpaste go to work like it really can. Changing up your order may take some getting used to, but over time, you’ll see the difference.
4) Stay Hydrated: Upping your water supply is a no-fail way to level up your health overall, and your teeth are no exception to this rule. Drinking water not only helps maintain a healthy pH balance in your mouth, but it also washes away residue and acids that can cause enamel erosion. It also helps you steer clear of dry mouth, which is a gateway to bad breath. And who needs that?
5) Show Your Gums Some Love: When it comes to improving your smile, you may be laser-focused on getting your teeth whiter, straighter, and overall healthier. Rightfully so, as these are all attributes of a megawatt smile; but you certainly don’t want to leave gum health out of the equation. If you neglect your gums, you’ll start to notice the effects of plaque buildup, which can irritate the gums and cause gingivitis, the earliest stage of gum disease. Seeing blood while brushing and flossing is a tell-tale sign that your gums are suffering. You may also experience gum recession — a condition where the gum tissue surrounding your teeth pulls back, exposing more of your tooth. Brushing at least twice a day with a gum-protecting toothpaste like Sensodyne Sensitivity and Gum, coupled with regular dentist visits, will keep your gums shining as bright as those pearly whites.
If the recurring strikes and scandals didn't give you an inkling of how seedy the entertainment industry can be, surely you can look to stories of former child stars whose fame of yesteryears can, at times, be a source of the conflict and inner turmoil they encounter today. While some child stars were able to keep riding the Hollywood wave to new levels and heights in a decades-spanning career, some found success occupying other lanes like retail, and some still look to the past as if it were yesterday with heavy regret due to the career that could have, or even should have, been.
Tiffany Evans' claim to fame happened early on in her childhood as her powerhouse vocals caught the attention of many during her time as a contestant on Star Search in 2003. At the time, she wasn't even 12, but she was racking up perfect scores with every performance, a competition first. Unsurprisingly, she scored a record deal shortly thereafter. Tiffany would go on to release her self-titled debut album in 2008 with singles like "I'm Grown" and perhaps her biggest hit, "Promise Ring," which featured Ciara. In 2005, she also had a minor role in the Tyler Perry film Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
Two decades later, Tiffany is now reminiscing on being able to spend her childhood years doing something she loved but regrettably having "nothing to show for it" as an adult, all due to greed and because the industry will either lift you up or spit you out.
Recently, an Instagram post published by The Neighborhood Talk shared a comment Tiffany left on the Instagram account @flyandfamousblackgirls regarding her experience with childhood fame. The post she commented on was a picture of herself from February 2003, when she appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The comment she left felt like an open letter to her inner child. In it, she recounted manipulation, missed opportunities, and abuse she encountered during that time.
"If I knew then what I know now I would have done things differently. I wish I could've changed so much that was going around this little girl. Everybody took from me. All of the hard earned money I made. The work I put in. They took from me, ruined some relationships in this business for me, squandered some opportunities that if you guys knew about it, you would've wanted to get it back in blood for me.
"I spent years doing something that I love, to become an adult and have nothing to show for it. It bothers my mental a lot some time. The ones who know the truth, really know... from a teenager to my adult years I went out looking for love in wrong places, was manipulated, and terribly abused."
Tiffany then expressed that her journey to where she's grown to since her time in the limelight brought her beauty that she has so much gratitude for. Since music will always be a priority for her, what she has been through doesn't stop her from wanting to see her career go further than it was allowed to go in the past.
Her comment continued, "Out of that kind of life I gained beautiful children, I met my soulmate but I really want to see what I worked so hard for all my childhood finally come to life! And I love music so I'm really working at it still y'all. I trust the Lord. Thank you for always rooting for me love y'all!"
"Please keep rooting for me." Tiffany ended her comment, prompting people to follow her music page. "we're dropping music together and some solo stuff soon too."
We're always rooting for you, Tiffany!
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