Diversity represented in film and television helps prevents bigotry, prejudice and ignorance. It allows people a birds eye view into the lives of “others” from different races, lifestyles, and cultures who they wouldn’t normally ever get the chance to interact with or take time to get to know.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make Film and TV more representative of the US population, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nnegest Likké. Nnegest Likké is a multi award-winning, African-American woman filmmaker who specializes in making socially and culturally impactful, commercial films. She has the distinguished honor of being one of the first women of color to write and direct a movie distributed by a major Hollywood studio. Among her proudest achievements, Nnegest’s 2016 film, “Ben & Ara” won an African Academy Award after winning multiple other international awards. Her début film was Fox Searchlight’s big girls’ Cinderella comedy, “Phat Girlz” starring Academy Award Winner, Mo’Nique which was produced by her career mentor, the late Bobby Newmyer of “Training Day” and “Sex, Lies & Videotape” fame. She’s currently preparing for the world wide release of her new film, “SUGAR IN MY BOWL”, a provocative romantic-comedy-drama which won multiple BEST awards on the festival circuit. The film explores themes of class, culture clash, gender roles, non-traditional love, and women’s empowerment from a bold, thought-provoking perspective. Nnegest earned her B.A. in Mass Communications from Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college. After graduating, she taught high school in Los Angeles for 4 years and discovered a passion for mentoring at-risk youth, which she once was. She is a member of the Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, Film Fatales, and Women In Film.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was teaching high school, I discovered the best method of reaching and influencing my students was telling them stories and using metaphors to get lessons and messages across. But the classroom is such a small platform. You can only reach a few people at a time. I realized if I put my messages in movies, I could reach millions of people worldwide. I quit teaching to become a full time filmmaker. Now my classroom is my films.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Earlier in my career, before I became a director, one of my screenplays, which was set up to be produced by a major studio went into turn-around. I was devastated and thought it was the worst thing that could happen. A year later, a producer who I was working with on another project read the script and loved it. He ended up buying it out of turn-around and offered me the opportunity to direct it. Today I joke that at the time, I hadn’t directed traffic, let alone a movie! But someone believed in me and gave me a shot. It was big risk on his part because he also financed the movie for $2.5 million dollars out of his own pocket. Luckily it sold to Fox Searchlight to $4.75M so his risk paid off. That was my late mentor, Bobby Newmyer and the movie was Phat Girlz.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
OMG, yes! While shooting my first movie, I was trying to be a “great” filmmaker and make my investor proud, so I tried to shoot a complicated scene in one long take like the masters do. Well it turned out disastrous. I ended up shooting like 47 takes and still didn’t get the shot! There was a lot of camera coordination involved and the timing of the actors’ entrances and exits needed to be perfect as well as them getting their lines right. Well, something went wrong every take. Either an actor flubbed a line, or didn’t enter or exit the scene on cue, or the camera hit a bump on the dolly track, or a battery or a light went out in the middle of the scene. On a few of the takes we managed to almost make it to the end when suddenly something would go wrong. I finally had to forget about being great and just shoot the scene like normal.
Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
I make sure ALL of my films have a multi-cultural cast and crew. As a member of an underserved community, this is a MUST for me. I come from a multi-cultural background and grew up in the diverse San Francisco Bay Area around all types of people; Black, white, Asian, Latino, Indian, rich, poor, gay, straight and more. This exposure allowed me to see that underneath our physical, cultural and lifestyle differences, we are more alike than we are different. I make a point to show this in my films by representing people from all groups in front of and behind the camera.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
The best part of my job as a filmmaker is receiving messages from fans expressing how my films have impacted their lives for the better. My first film, Phat Girlz celebrated bigger women as beautiful and I can’t count how many correspondences I received from women who said their lives were forever changed after watching the film. One memorable individual was a white woman who posted a review about the movie on youtube and she talked about how it was so much more than a movie for her. It was like therapy and helped her have a positive body image.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in film and television and its potential effects on our culture?
1) It help prevents bigotry, prejudice and ignorance by allowing people a birds eye view into the lives of “others” from different races, lifestyles, and cultures who they wouldn’t normally ever get the chance to interact with or take time to get to know.
2) It prevents hostility and anger from the disenfranchised groups who feel left out and excluded from opportunities in the industry.
3) It helps unify everyone in the country. We are one nation so everyone should feel included.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
1) Set quotas to guarantee a certain amount of films are made by filmmakers of color
2) Set quotas that a certain amount of people of color are hired for above & below the line jobs
3) Each major studio should have a fund set up to produce a certain percentage of diverse films
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is courageously taking the initiative to walk ahead of the crowd and lead them towards a certain desired outcome. Leadership is paving a path where there was no existing path. Leadership is determinately walking ahead alone and sticking by your principles and integrity no matter how many people see your vision at first. Despite opposition and criticism, leadership keeps forging ahead. When Spike Lee was first starting his professional career, he demonstrated leadership by demanding that a certain amount of African-Americans be hired on the crew and let into the union. That was unprecedented and he took the risk of having his film shut down. Because of him, a lot of African Americans today, including me, are in a union.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) “Making it” in Hollywood is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t even get into this business if you are not prepared for it to be a lifelong journey.
2) It’s not “who you know” as the saying goes, it’s “who likes you enough” to help you and hire you. I “know” a lot of top Hollywood players who have the power to greenlight projects, but it’s still a struggle to get work. “Knowing” them has given me a degree of access that outsiders may not have, but it hasn’t gotten me jobs, and that’s what we all want at the end of the day.
3) Find your tribe early on and grow together as a team so you have support along the journey. You can’t make it alone. A lot of industry folk who are successful today came up with a team they established in film school or when they were first starting out in the industry. So when one of them made it, they brought the rest of the team on. Without a network or someone to bring you on, it’s harder to get hired.
4) Have a life outside of Hollywood (the industry). I’ve seen many people do that and end up disillusioned and depressed when they don’t make it, or when they get too many rejections. In other words, find a source of happiness in your life that doesn’t depend on making it in Hollywood so that when you face the ups and downs of the industry, it doesn’t kill you.
5) Don’t get in it for the fame, awards, accolades, notoriety, and other superficial, vanity reasons because that doesn’t last. You have to get into it for the genuine love of the craft, because that’s what’s going to sustain you. It’s like a marriage, you can’t marry someone for superficial reasons because only real love is gonna get you through those hard times. There will definitely be those in this business.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to see a group of industry influencers and power players give something back to underserved communities. It could be something like pooling their money and/or time to help a dilapidated community. Giving film school scholarships to students who can’t afford film school tuition. Or launching a nationwide, free program for inner city students to learn about the industry and a craft like filmmaking. It would be something with the them of paying it forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When the climb seems too steep, take smaller steps, but by all means, keep climbing.”
There are many times in my career when I feel exhausted and like giving up, but I keep moving.
My biggest successes have come after taking that one extra step.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
George Lucas! I admire him greatly. He’s one of the few powerful men in Hollywood who really gets and empathizes with the African-American struggle. To be the creator of Star Wars and also do an important film like Red Tails shows he puts his money where his mouth is. He didn’t “have” to make that movie, but he chose to. What also says a LOT about him is, he’s a man of tremendous wealth, power, influence and fame who could have any woman in the world that he wants, but he chose to marry a black woman (mic drop).
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am currently on Twitter @nnegest and my email address is [email protected]
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!