By Faith Cummings

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Niija Kuykendall Is Transforming The Landscape Of Hollywood As Netflix’s Vice President of Film

Niija Kuykendall is spearheading an emerging filmmaker slate and uplifting the stories of first-time filmmakers of color. 

“Film can be like pushing a boulder up a mountain and you need to have the fortitude, determination and passion to continue pushing and not be discouraged by a fallback,” Niija Kuykendall says. And given the Netflix Vice President of Film’s track record of working on films like A Star Is Born, Stephen King’s It and Judas and the Black Messiah during her groundbreaking career (to just name a few), it’s abundantly clear that there’s no challenge or obstacle that she can’t face and overcome. 

Kuykendall’s love for movies blossomed during movie nights with her parents when classics like Pretty Woman and Die Hard played centerstage quite literally in her mind. But storytelling overall was her real first love, mostly through having her nose in books since the third grade. But when she arrived at Brown University and first saw Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust in her sophomore year independent study on Black women filmmakers, she changed her study focus to feature narrative because through it, she realized she could explore any world she wanted. 

Kuykendall’s career is a study in longevity, with a 13-year stint at Warner Bros. where she achieved so much and helped to make some of the biggest movies we know and love today. Soher move to Netflix as its Vice President of Film came out of a need to grow and pursue what’s next. “I was ready for growth in terms of leadership, exercising new muscles and exercising the other part of my brain that loves to build things,” she says. “This was the opportunity to come to a really incredible, innovative disruptor that had done really well doing that and taking the risk. To build my team from scratch, create the strategy for it, socialize the strategy around town and really figure out how I’m going to work with the filmmakers. It’s a rare opportunity in the film industry.”

Mentorship has been a huge part of Kuykendall’s career, and she believes she has a great responsibility to pay it forward as an advisor that provides guidance and gives encouragement to others. One of the reasons she was excited to be interviewed for this feature is because she’sa big advocate for peer mentorship as well and the other powerhouses showcased in this project are some of her dear friends. “I think there’s so much to be said about the people we’re growing up with and being able to get on the phone in the middle of the night with,” she says. “Every assistant that’s been on my desk, I consider them a part of my life forever, and I’m really proud because they’ve gone on to do incredible things. It’s our job to mentor the younger executives and to teach. I run the team that way and that is the culture of the team.”

Kuykendall is also a mentor for filmmakers and likes to think of herself as a champion and encouraging force for the stories they want to tell. “No matter how great you are and no matter how great the team is, it is my job to question and challenge to make them even better,” she says. “I believe great storytelling comes out of that back and forth, and that dialogue and debatecan be really interesting and tricky.”

When she thinks back on her favorite films, Judas And The Black Messiah comes to mind as Kuykendall’s known the filmmaker Shaka King since they were 17 years old and gushing about films together. But a forthcoming project is one she’s visibly excited about: the film adaptation ofAugust Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, starring Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington and Danielle Detwiler, with Malcolm Washington serving as its writer and director. The Broadway iteration received two Tonys and a ton of critical acclaim, but Kuykendall is excited for Washington’s feature debut and for the world to see his talent. An initiative from Kuykendall’s team that will give back to more filmmakers like Washington is Netflix’s forthcoming emerging filmmaker slate. Started by a young executive on her team, Tahirah Gooden, with a scope of two to three micro budget films a year, the goal of the program is to bring in underserved filmmakers and storytellers and give them a shot at making their first or second film within a studio setting and being commercially successful while they’re at it. 

Ultimately, Kuykendall’s outlook in both the short and long term includes having much more diverse leadership throughout Hollywood. “Films and storytelling of color are integral to this business, this industry and to popular culture, and they’re not yet treated as such,” she says. “It does feel like it needs to prove itself over and over again, so I’d like to see it be better recognized versus having to build the model and prove the model over and over. Except for a few folks, leadership is not diverse, and it tends to be recycled and passed amongst the same hands. It’s time for new blood and diversity and a makeup of executives and teams and companies that reflect our world.”

Alana Mayo

Head of Orion Pictures

Nicole Brown

President of TriStar Pictures

Amber Rasberry

Senior Film Executive, Amazon MGM Studios

Tara Duncan

President of Onyx Collective