It’s not easy being a Black filmmaker, especially a Black female storyteller. That’s why it’s so important to support those paving the way and delivering layered, introspective tales of contemporary Black life. Like Nefertite Nguvu. “What gets me through the day are the people I make films for who, outside of the work filmmakers like myself are doing, do not get to see true and deep reflections of themselves,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.” Nguvu is the force behind the film In the Morning. Set in Brooklyn, it tracks the lives of nine friends making it work in love and life in New York, all in one day. And no, it’s not another rom-com or something focused on who can’t get a man and why. Instead, it’s a feature about the very real ways love changes and declines.
The film’s site offers a full rundown of our characters (played by popular actors including Emayatzy Corinealdi, JoNell Kennedy and Numa Perrier) and their circumstances:
Harper, Ravi, Fez, Bly and Amara gather to bid farewell to one of their own moving abroad, and debate the compromise and loss of their youthful ideals regarding marriage, fidelity, life and love. Two lovers: Malik and Cadence, meet to ceremoniously end a whirlwind romance that has collapsed under the weight of fears, obligations and regrets. A couple: Zuri and Leal, sift through the remains of their broken relationship as they try to make a life altering decision. They begin to come to terms with their disintegrated trust, and the possibility of renewal. For everyone, life will be indelibly altered in the morning.
In the Morning (originally put out in limited release) will be released everywhere on Video on Demand on April 20 (including Amazon!). A screening tour will take place in New York, Atlanta, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, and finally, Newark, New Jersey. We had the chance to talk to Nguvu about what inspired the film, how she got her start, shooting the picture in just eight days, and what burgeoning filmmakers, particularly of color, need to know to keep pushing ahead. Here’s what she had to say.
MadameNoire: How did you get inspired to want to be a filmmaker?
Nefertite Nguvu: I am actually one of those weird people who knew since I was a little girl what I wanted to do. I started off as a theater kid. I used to want to be an actor. But then, my mom took me with her to see a film called The Learning Tree. It’s a film by Gordon Parks, the director and a very famous photographer. It was filmed in a very moving way and I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine at the time, but I just remember at that moment thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” I had seen mostly children’s films up to that point, so that was the first film that I remember having a great impact on me.
In my adolescence Spike Lee started making films. It was like the holy grail to me. Being a little bit older and seeing him make films about contemporary Black life was so exciting to me. This was during the ’80s and ’90s when a lot of films about Black life were not very flattering, at least the ones that got to see the light of day — not the ones that were at film festivals and things like that. So to see the work that he was making about hip, smart, contemporary Black folks, it really touched me and made me think, again, “I want to do that.” And so after I graduated high school, I went to the School of Visual Arts where I studied film and have been trying to carve out a niche for myself ever since.
Tell us more about some of your early work with Queen Latifah and Common!
That was so exciting for me being a Jersey girl [laughs]. It was for CoverGirl. They did a series for the anniversary of “U.N.I.T.Y.” and they wanted to find up-and-coming female rappers. That was fun. We got to go all over the country and follow some amazing young women around. To be with Queen Latifah at the time, that was my first big gig as a director, so that was exciting to be given that opportunity from someone who I have such an enormous amount of respect for.
I did a few different concepts with Common. The first one was a project called “Lovestar.” It was the first visual piece from the album and documentary we made about Black women and love. It was one of the songs from the Black America Again album. We talked to some amazing women about love and relationships, and Common as well, and we got to film him backstage, at rehearsal, and on stage at the Essence Music Festival. The second project was a series for Black America Again. We did interviews with Common and Harry Belafonte and Lorna Simpson — all these amazing artists and activists, about what it means to be Black at this moment in time.
How did you come up with the concept and story for In the Morning?
Like I said, I’m a huge fan of Spike Lee who has and is making films about contemporary Black life. I’m also a fan of a filmmaker named Ingmar Bergman. I’m a fan of Woody Allen. So I love stories that are essentially about relationships. I don’t often get to see films, particularly about Black women, that are in that vein. And so I decided to make a film like that because it was a film I wanted to see. There aren’t a lot of films that I feel reflect the women I know. This really is my love letter to the women in my life, all of the sisters that I know who don’t often get to see themselves reflected in film. I also wanted to tell a story about people in their 30s. I feel like, a lot of the times, in films about relationships, it’s boy meets girl, girl meets boy. I wanted a deeper story, and one that was a little more introspective. I wanted to look at people at a different point in their life past that sense of like, “Everything is going to work out for me because I’m 20, and I’m cute and everything is going to go my way!” But in reality it’s like, “Oh! Ok! Life actually happens differently than you anticipated sometimes. There are transitions that you have to go through and difficult choices you have to make.” So I wanted to make a film that looked at those things for women like myself.
Why is it that you had to shoot In the Morning in eight days and how did you do it?
Being an intimate film, a film made for a small budget, we knew that to tell the story and to be able to shoot the entire thing, we didn’t have a lot of time. The way it works out with films is that an extra day is extra money. It was definitely something as a first-time feature filmmaker that I was nervous about, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to make all of our days. But we had an amazing cast and the crew was also amazing. We all just worked so well together and we were able to make it happen. One of the great things too about the film was that because it’s dialogue and character driven, there are not a lot of different setups and changes, so we could get through a lot of [script] pages in a day. So for aspiring filmmakers, it’s something to think about, trying to create all that you can make with a limited budget.
What advice would you offer other young Black women interested in getting into filmmaking or presently trying to make it work?
The most important thing I learned that I would share with other women who are making films, Black women in particular, is that you just have to do the work. You have to make the work regardless of the limitations you may face. So many times I talk to up-and-coming artists, and they struggle so much with their confidence and not putting out work and waiting until they have the perfect set of circumstances. I feel like it’s about creating a body of work. Each piece of work you create is inertia that moves you forward to the next thing. And you always have to think about how your body of work stands up. For many of us, we’ll never have the perfect set of circumstances to create the work, but I think creativity is free. Think about Awkward Black Girl and how that series started off as a YouTube show and now it’s on HBO. You have to create your own inertia. You have to believe very strongly in your own ideas and I think creating a community around your work is essential also. I certainly would not still be standing and I certainly would not be working if it weren’t for my community. Even with In the Morning, the fact that it took us eight days to make the film, we had people come and cook for the crew. I’ve had women in my community fund raise for us and participate in some way. So I think being an active participant in your community and creating a community around your work is essential, as is just getting the work done.
Speaking of Insecure, will we see you on television soon?
I think there is so much amazing stuff happening on television in terms of Black content creators. So I’m happy to be a creator for any medium that would have me. I’ve worked on web series before. And my feature film? I had no idea when I started that I would be able to do the things that I’ve done. So I’m looking to push forward, continue to challenge myself, engage my community and work in the mediums that reach our folks. Television is certainly one of them.