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Interview: Director Nzingha Stewart on How ‘With This Ring’ Is Different + Much More

Interview: Director Nzingha Stewart on How 'With This Ring' Is Different + Much More

Nzingha Stewart is a writer director based in Los Angeles, California. Her latest work “With This Ring,” is about three single friends who vow to get married within a year.

Stewart recently spoke with Shadow and Act about the film as well as an exciting upcoming project.

Aramide Tinubu: How did you come across Deneane Millner’s book “The Vow”? Were you looking specifically for a story about single Black women looking for love?

Nzingha Stewart: None of the above. Gabrielle Union and I were introduced by Brian White who is actually in the movie, and we hit it off famously and became really good friends. She had the rights to the book and knew the author really well.  And because I’m a writer and director, she was like take a look at this and see if you can come up with something.  We really haven’t had a kind of Waiting to Exhale, with really fun Black women who are beautiful and their world is great to look at. They’re not like pulling out weaves. It’s just a fun, great, sisterhood movie. And I was like; I would love to do that. I would love to do something with beautiful Black women who love each other and have each other’s backs and their drama is in other places.

Aramide Tinubu: Recent films like “Jumping the Broom” (2011) “Think Like A Man” (2012) and “Baggage Claim” (2013) deal with similar romantic issues for Black Women. How is “With This Ring” different?

Nzingha Stewart: I think it actually starts with the intention. At the very beginning of the movie, I think that our intention wasn’t let’s just make a movie with Black women; they’ll show up. It wasn’t that at all.  I think people think this is a movie with a “you’ve got to get married theme”, and it’s actually the opposite. For me, I felt like there were so many times I would invite friends on a trip, like let’s go to Paris or let’s go to Budapest. And they would be like yeah, that’s a really romantic city I’m going to wait until I can go with my husband. And it’s like well; you don’t even have a boyfriend.

Aramide Tinubu: You’ll be waiting forever.

Nzingha Stewart: Right, you’re going to be waiting for a minute. And just the idea that so many people, I do it myself sometimes with my career, [think], I’m not going to be super happy until I’m here.  I have to catch myself and think well, what if that takes ten years? Am I just going to blow off this gift that the universe has given me of the next ten years and not be happy, and not feel fulfilled. Or, when I‘m doing something that’s fun, I’m occupied mentally with how do I get to this place?  I really was like we’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to stop waiting on the relationship to fulfill us or the career achievement, or the house or the money, or when something else in the future happens. We’ve really got to realize, this is our life and we’re blowing it. We are missing it. And so, the intention was so pure that I really want to get this across to Black women and I think it’s different in that way. I don’t know what the intentions of the other movies were, or what the thought process was. But I can tell you between Gabrielle and me, it was not let’s just get a movie made or, we bet Black women will like this. It was like let’s create something for people that we love, which are other Black women. Let’s kind of support them in remembering, happiness is a choice and don’t wait. Don’t do that to yourself.

Aramide Tinubu: What do you think about the statistic that 49% of Black women will never get married? Do you think that the media has exacerbated the statistic and put more stress on Black women?

Nzingha Stewart: I think the media definitely does it but I think more than the media, we do it to ourselves.  I cannot go home for Christmas dinner and someone not say, “Why aren’t you married yet?” Or, “When are you going to get married?” That’s not CNN in my house, that’s my aunties.  And sometimes I just screw with them and I’m like, “Well obviously there is something wrong with me, maybe if I didn’t have hoven feet somebody might like me.”  It’s because it’s so ridiculous to say that.  I do think obviously it’s a number game and those aren’t insane misperceptions. Maybe it’s a little bit better like forty percent won’t get married. But there is some truth to the fact that statistically its just not happening. So in knowing that, what if it never happens? Are you just not going to be happy with your life? And I ask myself that everyday about something. Whether it’s some projects I’m waiting to hear about, or some project that I want to see happen. I sort of just sit with the reality of, so what if this doesn’t happen? What if this is it? What if this is my life forever? Am I just not going to be happy? And then I’ll say of course not, I gotta live.  And I realize when I decide that if everything stays just exactly the way that it is, I can be happy like this. The universe will be like, let me give you everything else you ask for too. Then it’s a weird cycle, when you are in a good place, doors start opening and that has always been the truth..

Aramide Tinubu: For me, Some of the laugh out loud moments of the film for me was when Regina King’s character goes on her dates. Were these scenarios written in the book, or were they more personal to you?

Nzingha Stewart: They were all real life; they were not in the book.

Aramide Tinubu: Oh wow!!

Nzingha Stewart: I mean even the one guy who says something like. “I usually date pretty chicks, but I’ll make an exception for you.” That’s happened to me on a date. What is there to say? Oh, thanks, I’m sorry I’m so ugly?  What do you say to something like that? I asked Regina what would be the worse thing a guy could say on a blind date to start the date off?  We had to change the word because of Lifetime, but, she was like, a guy looks at you and says, “You ever thought about getting your titties done?” So we had to change the word to “boobs” or “breasts” or something but that made it into the movie. Those are things that had happened to us. It’s real in the field.

Aramide Tinubu: I read that you and Gabrielle Union took the project to Tracey Edmonds and Shelia Ducksworth who then took it to Lifetime. How did the project take off?

Nzingha Stewart: Gab was a real producer. I was very very proud of her on that. She optioned the book and she saw the potential for it to be a movie. She really got Regina on board because they were friends. She got me to be the writer and director. She really did everything a great producer does. So I have to give her her props, she did not just slap her name on it

Aramide Tinubu: And this is her first producing credit if I understand correctly.

Nzingha Stewart: Yes it is. She’s kind an athlete, so once she decides something she goes for it

Aramide Tinubu: Regina King, Jill Scott and Eve Cooper are amazing talents how was it working with them?

Nzingha Stewart: Absolutely amazing. And it is something you’re scared about going in because you’re like I’m going to be stuck for a month in Cleveland with a whole lot of estrogen and sometimes that doesn’t always turn out great. For the first hour of rehearsal we were just sharing personal stories and relationships that we’d had, that had gone wrong. Regina was like; I actually took a vow like this. I was like wow, because I wrote it and I wrote it on the premise of the book but I was wondering how real is that that women would do that. I was so happy that she was like yes, girl we did that. I felt much better knowing this is true and I’m telling the truth. From then on it was like a love fest. Normally on a shoot the actors go back to their trailers when it’s not their day or their time. These women liked each other so much they never left set.

Aramide Tinubu: And you can tell, you can really tell that in the film.

Nzingha Stewart: The chemistry that was created there was so beautiful and has really has lasted to this day. It’s been a beautiful experience to see. I don’t buy that propaganda that Black women can’t get along, or don’t like each other. These are big personalities. You have women like Jill Scott and strong personalities like Eve and Gabrielle Union and we loved each other.  The chemistry that you see onscreen was absolutely real.

Aramide Tinubu That’s fantastic and I always love to here things like that because I’ve personally never felt bashed or pushed aside by other Black women. At the end of the film, Trista really learns that happiness and not necessarily marriage should be a goal for her.  Do you think that’s an important lesson that women, Black women especially can learn from?

Nzingha Stewart: I don’t want to knock marriage because it is beautiful, and one of the characters does end up married and you’re happy for her. But I do think that there is an enormous amount of, you’ve got to get married or you’re not fulfilled. And then there is an enormous amount of married people who aren’t happy. It cannot start from outside yourself. You’ve got to get present and be like where am I right now? And right now if you can’t answer the question, am I happy, then double check what’s going on inside there. How can I address what’s going on? Is that loneliness that I’m feeling, what can I do about that is that anger? Stephen Bishops’ character in the movie says, “If you’re waiting on something outside yourself to make you happy, that’s not happiness. Just check in with yourself and know that if it’s something that you’re waiting on, know that you are going in the wrong direction.  

Aramide Tinubu: I read that your next project will be produced by John Legend for HARPO could you give me a little more insight there?

Nzingha Stewart: Yes, I’m so exited about it. It’s actually a project that’s being co-produced by Harpo and John Legend. I can say that it is a limited TV series and this project has been a real passion project of mine for years, and I just never felt comfortable even saying it out loud. I knew it would be a hard project to get done because it’s much more highbrow than say “With This Ring.” So, I felt like until something in my gut says now is the right time to say it just don’t. But, I’ve got these new managers and I talked to them and they said have you met with Mike Johnson from John Legend’s company and I had not. So we sat down and he was a huge fan of my music video work so we hit it off famously, and I pitched it to him and he said we love that. He called my agent and said, we love this idea, we love Nzingha, how do we proceed? So I pitched it to him and he said what do you think about bringing on another producer? And I said well, I don’t know. I just feel like John and those guys have been selling things left and right and he was like, well I’m thinking Oprah. And I said, well I believe I can make an exception. And so we went in, we pitched Harpo and they loved it. And then we got the word that we had permission to move forward, and so we have officially kicked it off. It’s just this really really exciting, funny dramatic and groundbreaking. I cannot wait, because I love love love, With This Ring, but I’m almost afraid people who know me from Bilal’s “Soul Sista” and Common’s “The Light” will say this movie doesn’t feel like Nzingha. But for me I’m like you don’t know that Anchorman (2004) is one of my favorite movies and you know, I just love a fun good romantic comedy. The truth is everybody wants to find love; it’s a fun movie. But this other project with John and Oprah…I’m so glad I get to do both. I’m so glad I get to show that range and do something that I think is going to be really really important television.

Aramide Tinubu: Well the last think I will ask is, Its devastatingly difficult for Black female directors in the entertainment industry. How do you press forward as a Black female director with your projects and your writing?

Nzingha Stewart: I don’t think you ever know when it’s your time. I actually think that’s none of your business because you’ll get so caught up in that and it’s something that you can’t control.  But what I can do is, I do know they’re not looking for us.  We’ve got to do like what Ava (Duvernay) did and self-generate.  The project that I have with Legend and Harpo that’s a project that I came up with, and I developed. Even For Colored Girls that’s a project that for years I was optioning over and over and over again because I believed in it. And there’s a lot of scripts that I have just in the cannon waiting to go so that when it is my time, I’ve got a slew of things that I can say yes to now.  So I really think you can’t say when it’s your time but you can be ready for it.  Then I think with that act of preparation that Gods will be like ok, I think she’s ready.  You can’t worry about that part you can only worry about creating content and doing what you can to be good at it when you get there. But sidebar: I’m friends with Ava and just so want to cry with all that is happening for her. I feel so full for her. I’m so happy for how far it’s gone. On Martin Luther King Day I was thinking I’ve never seen this level of excitement on Martain Luther King Day.  And I really think it has so much to do with “Selma.”

Aramide Tinubu: Well thanks so so much for taking the time to speak with me I really appreciate it.

Nzingha Stewart: Oh you’re so welcome and I’m so glad that you saw the film and enjoyed it and hopefully we will be talking soon about that super exciting other thing.

“With This Ring” premieres Saturday, January 24th at 8PM on Lifetime.

Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black Cinema geek and blogger. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.co   or tweet her @midnightrami

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