FILMMAKER NEFERTITE NGUVU ON BRINGING MODERN, SMART, BEAUTIFUL AND COMPLEX BLACK LIFE TO FILM
Filmmaker Nefertite Nguvu knew very early on that she wanted to be a filmmaker, and about just as early, she figured out the types of films she wanted to make. "I rarely ever get to see Black women like me in the films that I love. This is why I'm so passionate about making films."
With her debut feature film, In the Morning, she's filling that void with the very necessary story about intelligent, imperfect, complicated people, figuring out their lives and place in the world.
"It was super important to me to make a film that was about our everyday lives, about our humanity, just about the space of being intimate and human and loving. I wanted to create a film, that felt poetic and soulful, and shockingly intimate. I feel like those things are missing sometimes in films that are able to get made about our stories."
Here, we interview Nefertite about her stunning film which is now available on-demand via Vimeo, Amazon and more, the challenges she faced on her path to becoming a filmmaker, and her best tip for young women who want to start making their own films. (Plus, we asked her about her great personal style!)
A Q&A with Nefertite Nguvu
Kweli Wright: First of all, congratulations on your first feature film! There's been so much excitement around it which I'm sure is because In the Morning is the whole package - a great cast, complex characters, true storytelling and it's really visually beautiful. Is it easy for you to make your work so visually appealing?
Nefertite Nguvu: Thank you so much. I would say it’s definitely intentional, I don’t know how easy anything is when it comes to independent filmmaking (laughs). It’s all hard, girl ...
KW: My bad, I definitely used the wrong word. (laughs)
NN: … especially when you’re working with limited budgets! You have this idea in your mind of what you want everything to look like, and the reality that you have to make them with just forces you to be more creative.
I will say that particularly when it comes to films about Black life, we don’t get to see ourselves looking [modern]. A lot of the films that get made are about Black plight in some way or poverty or some type of racial oppression. I’m a huge fan of filmmakers like Spike Lee, especially those early films he was making that were just about contemporary Black life – just life in a way that a lot of us know it to be and are experiencing it, but don’t often get to see reflected in films.
KW: I loved it. You can tell how much care you put into creating In the Morning, how many years ago was the film made?
NN: We actually shot the film in 2012. It took me two years in post-production to actually finish the film. We did a KickStarter campaign in 2011 to raise money to shoot the film, and that’s what we were able to get the film in the can with. But then after it’s shot, there are all these costs that come up in post-production that were needed, that I just couldn’t cover so I had to take time away from the editing and go get a ‘real’ job and do all these things to be ready to come back to it and finish it.
Then in 2014, we had our film festival premiere, had UrbanWorld [Film Festival] and that was the first time In the Morning was publicly shown and we won the Audience Award there, and from there we spent about two years on the film festival circuit—going to film festivals all throughout the states and abroad. And now the film is available on worldwide video on-demand.
Every step for me in this process has been like a hurdle to navigate around, but the thing that keeps me going ... is thinking about the people that I make films for who often don’t get to see themselves reflected in this type of work. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me pushing through despite the challenges.
This film was made with blood, sweat, tears and love, that’s how I describe it. So many people from my own community, filmmaking community and just like my hometown in Newark, NJ, have really pitched in to make it possible and push this project up the hill. So I’m forever grateful for that.
KW: What was your writing process like for this film?
NN: I knew that I wanted to tell a relationship story and I knew that having it unfold over the course of one day was going to make it more manageable in terms of the budget that we were working with. It also gave me the opportunity to tell a character story. No matter how much money I have eventually to tell stories, I really do love character-driven stories, so I’ll always be telling those.
But this project in particular, it’s funny, I tried to approach it the way I usually do when I’m script-writing and it just wasn’t really working for me. It wasn’t ringing true. So I stopped trying to write dialogue in the traditional way and I just started to write letters on behalf of each character to the person that they were speaking. I started to write these really, really long letters between them and then I just went back and started to pull the dialogue from those because I felt like I wanted it to have those emotive feelings that you have when you are experiencing relationships. [Writing the letters helped me] get inside of the characters.
KW: That's another thing I loved about In the Morning, the characters are all relatable to me in some way.
NN: That’s awesome, I love to hear that.
KW: Were you a little girl making films and setting up scenes with your dolls?
NN: I knew very early on that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I started off writing poetry and then I got into theater as a kid and would do the Summer Arts Institute and then I went to Arts High School in Newark [New Jersey] and studied theater, so I was always around it.
I always say, the first time I remember wanting to be a filmmaker is when I saw the Gordon Parks film, The Learning Tree. My mom took me to a film festival to see it and it was the first time I remember seeing a film that wasn’t specifically geared towards children. It had a really profound emotional effect on me. I remember feeling like, gosh, I want to do that, but I didn’t know what it meant. It wasn’t until later around high school that I started to experiment and make films with my little VHS camera that I would borrow from my uncle and I would write plays.
Then when I went to college I studied film, and that was my first formal experience training to be a filmmaker, at the School of Visual Arts.
KW: Did you imagine yourself as an entrepreneur when you first started studying and making films because of the inspiration from Spike Lee, and imagine, I could just make them myself?
NN: It’s funny, when I started film school I was young, I graduated high school when I was 16, so I entered the School of Visual Arts at 16.
I was the youngest person in my class, I was the only Black woman in my class and unlike many of my former fellow classmates I wasn’t able to take unpaid internships so I had to get a real job so I could pay my little rent in Brooklyn.
I had this passion to make films but at that time it was before digital technology emerged and it was still such a very expensive medium so in many ways I let it slip away. I took a very long detour after film school just working in other fields before I made my way back to making my shorts.
When I did make my way back to it, certainly the message of filmmakers like Spike Lee and “by any means necessary” resonated with me because I spent all this time waiting and hoping that someone was going to give me the money to produce a script or I was entering all these little competitions waiting for an opportunity to be presented to me and then I learned, hey, guess what? It’s not set up that way!
If the types of stories that you want to tell are not being made and aren’t perceived by Hollywood as being “important,” it was up to me to continue waiting or I could take some steps towards making this happen myself, and that’s what I did.
KW: What would be your best tips for young filmmakers, especially young women, besides studying and working hard.
NN: Beyond those things, you have to create work. I think about it as making a body of work. Like I said, I wasted a lot of time just myself not having that confidence and feeling like I had to wait for someone to give me that opportunity. So I would encourage all of the young women out there who are thinking about it to look to the resources that they already have at their disposal and start making work.
You think about Issa Rae started making her YouTube series "Awkward Black Girl" and what they looked like in the beginning, she clearly wasn’t working with a lot of resources, but she had an amazing idea and an incredible voice and that’s what shines through, and look at where she is now.
I feel like for the young women out there, just start making work, because that’s the way you’re going to get better. That’s the way you’re going to lead to your own opportunities by having work to show and that’s the only way people are going to understand what your voice is and what your gifts are. That’s the only way you’ll be able to hone in on that and improve.
KW: Your company is called Hollywood Africans, tell me more about that.
NN: Hollywood Africans is actually the title of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting that I really love, but that title always spoke to me because I grew up with parents that were politically active in the ‘60s and ‘70s hence the name Nefertite Nguvu. So having that sense of culture and having the sense of Africa being weaved into the fabric of your being since you were a baby ... I felt like it spoke to both parts of me – my aspirations as a filmmaker and also what always grounds me which is my love of our culture.
KW: What are you working on now?
NN: I’m actually in post [production] I just shot another film a couple weeks ago with two of the actors that are in In the Morning, Jacky Ido and JoNell Kennedy, a short called “Myself When I Am Real.”
I’m also starting a new project, a short film that is part of this project called AT&T’s Hello Lab, which I’m super excited about. I did a couple of pieces for Common’s album Black America Again, so now I'm working with him and his company Freedom Road Productions and AT&T asked us to develop a new production. I’m super super, super excited about this. I’m really getting to work in a different way so it’s nice to work and be supported in this way.
KW: I wanted to touch on personal style because I love your fashion sense. What's your style philosophy?
NN: I definitely feel like style is how you express your individuality and how you present yourself in the world says a lot about you. I’m more into style than fashion, I’ll ride the train and be obsessed with the way someone put together an outfit, or colors or construction. I’m not that into designers, I’m into personal style, particularly as a Black woman.
The Hollywood Africans thing speaks to my personal style because I’m always infusing African print fabrics or beaded jewelry or anything that is reflective of culture.
There’s the quote by my mentor, George Wolfe, and he said: “God created Black people and Black people created style,” And I feel like our style is like our armor against all the other things in the world that are coming down against us and still have the audacity to present ourselves in ways that just declare our personhood and our importance and our will to thrive and exist in the world.