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15 Oct

On The Heels Of Her Emmy Win, Nneka Onuorah

When Nneka Onuorah was first nominated for a Creative Arts Emmy, she didn’t even realize it. The director of Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls was in London, already knee-deep in one other major project — with Megan Thee Stallion no less– doing what she does best, “working always,” as she tells us.

“I looked down at my text messages, and I saw all of those texts saying, ‘Congratulations. Congratulations lady!’ And I’m like, ‘On what? What’s everybody talking about?’”

What everyone was talking about were the six award nominations the favored Prime Series received, including Outstanding Competition Program and Outstanding Directing for a Reality Program, the latter of which Onuorah won Saturday night.

Ahead of her win, we talked to Onuorah about directing this project through a recent lens, her background as a plus-size dancer, and the legacy she wants to go away as a director and filmmaker.

Article continues after video.

How did you get attached to this project?

NNEKA ONUORAH: Lizzo and Makiah Green and Myiea Coy, they’re two Black women who were executive producers on the project, reached out to me because that they had met me at other meetings at other firms, they usually were attempting to work out who could be the very best director for this series. Since it is a dance show, there’s competition points to it, they usually wanted the story and the visuals to feel different and feel personal and have someone respect the stories. They usually knew I used to bop. I was once a plus-size dancer actually, within the industry before I even began directing.

So that they called me, they usually said, “We’ve this project, and we have the desire to make a difference.” So after they called me, I used to be like, “All right, let me toss something together.” So I went back in it, and I said, “I never did the truth genre before, so how can I be authentic on this experience?” So I said, “I’m going to call it docuality, and convey myself to it, and alter the best way that they do every part.” And I said that I actually desired to make people feel immersed within the people and the spaces that these women occupy. I need them to feel their bodies. I need them to be of their bodies. So my approach was docuality, they usually loved it. Amazon loved it, they usually brought me on.

On The Heels Of Her Emmy Win, Nneka Onuorah Is Committed To Making People Feel Self Love Through Her Work

As rampant as fat phobia is, audiences have really embraced this show which has been nice to see. Why do you think that that’s?

ONUORAH: I believe audiences embraced the show that way is because I feel like we were very strategic in how we presented this story. These are girls who’re a part of a dance competition, sharing the nuance of their stories. A whole lot of people after they tell stories, they simply tell you an identical commercialized monolithic perspective like, “Oh, if plus-size women are big, they have to be sad and down, they usually can’t move they usually can’t dance.” But we didn’t treat it like that. These are women who’re dancers, who’re competing, who’re beautiful, daring, they usually all have different stories. They arrive from different countries. Someone’s trans, someone’s a Christian, someone’s, you already know, from Korea, someone’s Spanish.

There’s all various kinds of nuances to the story. And we give attention to the nuances of them as human beings, and we highlighted the things they experienced. But a whole lot of what they experienced, beyond what their size was, everyone experiences, you versus you, attempting to make it through a nasty day, sisterhood. I believe we leaned heavily into sisterhood, which is significant for me and Lizzo and the opposite Black executive producers, because we knew we’re not about to be on TV, looking like we’re creating stakes and attempting to create this environment that’s toxic to those women. A whole lot of people don’t understand that. Being plus size, being Black, being a girl, being trans, being so many various things is already a stake in itself. So I feel like what reality television meant to truly do at first, to be real, I feel like we actually were real. So I believe that’s what made it feel different is these women feel real, you’re probably not listening to just their sizes. That’s the wonder about them, but there’s so far more to this series, I feel like. And I believe that, that creates a readability.

After which beyond that, I actually tried to make the visuals. I didn’t put them on tripods and make the cameras all stationary. I made my cameramen walk as much as the women and be very fluid about shooting. And I made a selected camera simply to romanticize the body, because I wanted them to need to interact with these women in that way after they’re filming them, in order that when individuals are watching it, they’re loving it. I used to be like, “Should you see something jiggle, lean into that. Don’t back up. Don’t attempt to cover nothing up. Treat it with respect.”

In order that’s how I approached it. And I made every body that was on set need to embrace, experience and be in it. So I feel like through the lens and thru the screen, people just felt like they were in it, and these are their relations, or their sisters, or whatever.

On The Heels Of Her Emmy Win, Nneka Onuorah Is Committed To Making People Feel Self Love Through Her Work

What was it like working with Lizzo?

ONUORAH: It was amazing working with Lizzo. There’s so many reasons it’s amazing working along with her. She’s so funny, she’s so daring. She says the wildest things out of nowhere, out of the air, and also you don’t know what to anticipate. So it’s good to have that unpredictability, since it helps set the tone for the show and for the great energy for the women. And what I also loved about working with Lizzo is she’s extremely skilled and right down to do what you should try. Whenever you work with a whole lot of talent, every talent doesn’t comply to creatives at times, but she was willing to try things with us.

And she or he put her money where her mouth is. All the women are in her videos, they’re acting at award shows. These girls are booked, and he or she did what she got down to do, and it’s real life. So just knowing that somebody’s not only talking and attempting to pretend to be for their very own interest, but actually making a difference in women’s lives, and due to this fact through this, so many more may have opportunities. So I believe that’s the very best part about working along with her.

How did you personally get into dance?

ONUORAH: Initially, I got into dance, like a whole lot of us Black people, the Black church at first. I was once a praise dancer once I was growing up, and that just told me that I could actually move a rhythm. My dance teacher told me, “Do you already know you’ll be able to dance?” And I used to be like, “I can?” I had no idea.

I moved back to Latest York from Georgia, and I used to be working, principally dancing at Broadway Dance Center. After which I got hired as an assistant to a whole lot of the large choreographers that were choreographing for among the biggest artists, like Janet Jackson and all the large names on the time. And that got me into dance, just training at Broadway Dance Center. I loved to maneuver. I loved to inform stories.

Once I was a toddler, I used to have my friends do a dance to Destiny’s Child “Say My Name, “they usually thought we were just playing the sport, but I took every part so serious. So I made them do it again and again and all over again until they got it right right through. After which I began to appreciate, that’s directing. So I feel like dance was the early stages of recognizing that I used to be a storyteller.

On The Heels Of Her Emmy Win, Nneka Onuorah Is Committed To Making People Feel Self Love Through Her Work
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – MAY 21: Nneka Onuorah attends The Prime Experience: “The Art of Storytelling” on May 21, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Amazon Studios)

How would you characterize your experience being a plus-size dancer at the moment?

ONUORAH: On the time once I was a plus-size dancer, I feel like people thought I used to be just dancing for fun. I don’t think people thought that there was any longevity, and there wasn’t anyone for me to essentially look as much as. There was a whole lot of choreographers who were plus size, but you’d see them choreographing but not dancing. And I could be like, “Why is that? Why are they teaching, but they’re not with the artist.” So I feel prefer it was only a matter of individuals don’t do things unorthodox that they don’t see. They struggle to naturally match the artist, which implies also more plus size artists have to be on the market. Because in the event that they were more plus-size artists, it may’t be just Lizzo. what I’m saying?

So in the event that they’re attempting to match what the artist would seem like, then meaning we want more plus size artists and artistry, and that should be a more widely expressed thing. So I believe that I even probably was like, “Well, I do know this is simply going to go, but to this point for me.” So I transitioned into other things, which is why I used to be so powerful. I used to be so enthusiastic about watching the women undergo this process, since it’s like, “You may, and you’ll.” what I’m saying?

How did you make your transition from performing to going behind the scenes and directing?

ONUORAH: Well, I used to be dancing, like I said, working in a dance studio. After which once I was going to school, I initially was like, “Well, I even have to do an internship.” And I used to be studying psychology, actually, on the time, but I used to be like, “I need to do something fun, because I’m going to be at school for 50 years, it seems. I’m going to get my doctorate, so let me do something fun that I enjoy.” So there was a BET or MTV internship, and I made a decision to take the BET one, they usually put me with the president of the corporate, Steven Hill, who did all of the BET awards. I got hired inside a month, because I beasted through that internship. I literally would stay overnight. Sometimes I might work in every department. And Steven was the president of the corporate, so I got to see his meetings from the highest down, and it taught me business strategy and stuff like that. I used to be just trying to seek out my way, and I used to be like, “I actually need to be the one who is accountable for the creative itself, after which also the creative strategy. How are we going to get from point A to point B?”

So I worked in television, doing award shows, like BLACK GIRLS ROCK! and other shows for years. After which finally, after seven years, I used to be like, “I’m going to quit because I need to inform my very own stories. I need to have agency. I don’t want to sit down in a gathering and ask someone for permission to inform a story that should be told, and I’m told no since it’s not vital.” So I went and made my very own documentary, The Same Difference, in 2014, and I spent my very own money on it, all my savings. And I might take the cameras from work. And when people would come interview for 106 & Park, or certain things, I’d be like, “Do you mind doing an interview for my documentary?” They’d like, “Sure, I’m here.” I did all that until I got a movie together. And it did so well that it toured like 250 cities in all different countries, every continent. And I began becoming an independent filmmaker, and it really took off for me. After which I began working with the HBOs and Netflix, and I’ve now directed President Obama. I’ve like set to work with Lizzo. The profession has just been a continuous blossoming ministry, it seems like.

What has it meant to you on your work to have this impact in each the body positive and queer space?

ONUORAH: It’s meant probably the most to me, because I actually create this work. I began creating this work because I desired to do a Q&A. I went to this film Pariah that was by Dee Rees, and I went to go see it while I used to be working at Viacom and the Paramount movie show, and he or she gave a Q&A. And I remember people being so impacted by the work that it made them take into consideration themselves. And I used to be like, “Wow, that style of healing, it might be amazing to do it through a creative aspect.” Healing is available in creativity as well. And I knew that was an element of my mission, so I used to be like, “How do I even have a Q&A?” That was my goal. So I said I’m going to make a movie.

So I made a movie. And what I ended up doing, I did so many film festivals all across the globe. I used to be having this queer conversation before there was any conversation around nuance. Before, it was just masculine or feminine .It was Butch/fem dynamics. After which that film opened up a lot conversation around non-binary trans conversations and all those nuances. So I principally had that conversation in Australia, I had it in Africa, I had it in Jamaica, I had it in China. I had it in Paris. I had it within the white area in Paris. I had it within the Black area in Paris. And that basically gave me my education and my social intellect on the world. It was almost like I used to be getting the creativity and the psychology stuff at the identical time. So knowing that now we’ve got so many non-binary actors and actresses, knowing that more women are comfortable presenting either way, knowing that individuals are coming out from the underground now and with the ability to shine and be pleased with themselves. Take into consideration an individual in Nigeria who’s never thought they saw an individual like them, that they never existed, and just that they may see themselves, that opens up an entire big world for increasingly more stories to be told, and folks to simply feel seen and wish to live one other day.

I feel like I’m doing my work’s purpose, and any project that I’ve ever done is at all times tied to a cause. I’ve never taken any project that’s similar to, “Oh, that is for some Hollywood stuff.” I’ve never been into that. I literally enjoy being with my community, making a difference, and making people feel that self love.

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