Vulnerability and intimacy: exploring stories of Black life with Nefertite Nguvu

Recently I got to get a greater insight into the mind of writer and filmmaker, Nefertite Nguvu. As the founder of Hollywood Africans, Nguvu continues to center Blackness in her stories, making sure to shed light on the truth of our experiences and personalities. Read on for what inspires her and how she continues to push through Black trauma in order to assert her beliefs about Black womanhood. 

What drew you to producing, screenwriting and directing? Take us through your journey. What brought you to this point?

I knew from very early on that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I had really amazing parents that would take me to film festivals as a child.  One of the first films I saw that had a huge impact on me was “The Learning Tree” which was directed by Gordon Parks. Though I didn’t know exactly what it meant, I knew at that moment I wanted to be a filmmaker.  I had always been an artist. I wrote poetry from a young age and went to a performing arts high school where I studied theater. From there, I studied film at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. I took a long detour after graduating from film school where I had to work in other fields in order to have a steady income.  So for almost ten years I quietly tucked my dreams away and held down dependable 9-5's. I couldn't see a path for me to make films. Eventually, and thankfully, I realized I had to create my own path. I found my way back and started making short films independently as well as working behind the scenes on other peoples films. All of those things brought me to this point.

"...love, for me, is the most profound expression of who you really are". This is how the trailer for In the Morning begins. As the primary writer on this movie, do you write what you want Black people to hear or experience? How do you create this world in which Black people are not wholly demonized? Why?

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I’m always trying to discover how to make the work more truthful and more soulful, because more than anything else, I want people to see themselves.  I create from the truth of my experiences, of what I actually know Black life to be for me and how I witness it. This is not every Black persons experience, we are not a monolithic group.  One of the things that motivated me to make ‘IN THE MORNING’ was a desire to see relationships reflected in a deeper way. There are so many films that tell boy meets girl fairy tales, which are fun, but I don’t really know anyone whose love experiences are that neat or simple.  Relationships can be complicated, especially for 30 somethings, so I wanted to make a film that reflected the truth of that. Vulnerability and intimacy are not often explored in stories about Black life, and I want to be a part of changing that. I used my own experiences as well as those of some friends. This film is my love letter to women: beautiful, smart, elegant, vulnerable, sensitive, Black women who don’t often get to see themselves in movies.

Do you, yourself, actually believe that there is an inevitability to the change or decline in love as is the theme in the film? Why? What does love and experiencing love mean for Black people who live in America?

Black love is a beautiful, necessary, powerful, amazing thing!  Though the film takes a look at where the characters are in terms of their relationships with other people, ultimately it’s about the relationship one has with one’s self.  At its core, the film is about self-love and self-actualization, and the power of choice and action which for our characters, and for many of us out here in the real world, is no easy feat.  So much in our society drills into us that we are not worthy, that we have no rights, very directly-- that our lives don’t matter. Finding your way around those ever present constraints, and stepping into your own sense of power is transformative, and indeed a step towards happiness-- which I believe is just another word for freedom.  Like most people I know, our characters are doing their best to get free.

How much of yourself--your own thought processes do you put into your films? What is your inspiration?

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In the same way that I watch artists that I love make themselves an open vessel and put their heart and soul in their work, I bring that same sense of my full being to my own work.  That is not to say that every character has my own point of view, as I don’t think that is particularly interesting filmmaking, but I believe my life force is in all of my work. My inspiration varies depending on the work. In The Morning was inspired by the women in my life and so many of our shared experiences. Myself When I Am Real, my latest short film that is about a couple dealing with the post-traumatic ripple effect that the loss of a loved one to police violence is having on their lives.  I was inspired to write after seeing so many grieving families on the news after they had lost a loved one to senseless police violence. I knew how horrified, sad and angry I felt just bearing witness. I couldn’t fathom how these families were coping and the depths of what they must be feeling, so my heartbreak and empathy for them led me to the tools I have at my disposal: my art.

What advice would you give all creatives out there--particularly the ones that want to highlight the experience of Black people?

I’d give all the creatives the same advice I give myself through challenges: make your films, (or your desired art form) by any means necessary!  It will not always be easy, especially when you are committed to telling stories that fall outside of the dominant narrative about us. Find ways around the gatekeepers and a direct line to the people you are making your work for. So much more is possible when we think outside of power structures that do not serve us. Keep pushing!

[You recently worked with AT&T 28 Days History by Us campaign] Why are campaigns like AT&T 28 Days program important? What kind of work have you accomplished with them?

What I loved most about the AT&T 28 Days program was that it made one of it’s specific tasks highlighting lesser known Black History stories and change makers.  I think knowing the full breadth and scope of our history is so important. I got to do a segment about one of my cinematic heroes Charles Burnett and his exquisite film, Killer Of Sheep. More people need to know about him and his work, I am happy that this campaign helped to do that on a wide platform.

See Nefertite's vid on Charles Burnett here

What are some upcoming projects? What were some of your favorite projects to work on?

I am in the writing stage of my next feature film now.  Currently I have a short documentary about my hometown, the city of Newark available online. The short narrative film that I made as part of AT&T’s Hello Lab entitled, The Last Two Lovers At The End Of The World is available now on Direct TV and I’m just beginning the festival rounds with my latest short film entitled, Myself When I Am Real.  I always feel that my favorites are the ones coming up tomorrow. I try to grow and challenge myself with each project, and hope everyone is better than the last.  That keeps me motivated. 

Now for our favorite question: Why are Black girls fly?

Black girls are fly because we very literally make the world a better place.  From being the lifeline of social justice movements, to innovators in science, education and art, history and the present moment we are living through is filled with the stories of Black women changing and shaping our world for the better.