InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights Brooklyn-based filmmaker and writer Nevline Nnaji.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
NEVLINE: I am twenty-two and I currently live in Brooklyn. I am originally from Northampton, Massachusetts. I lived and went to school in Nigeria as a teenage. I recently moved to New York to do film work. I am a filmmaker, freelance videographer/editor, a writer, and I do video blogs on YouTube to address and represent authentic experiences of women of color.
ELIXHER: What drew you to film and photography?
NEVLINE: Honestly, YouTube was a big part of it. I loved the fact that I could use video to share ideas and interact with people. When I was in college, I switch my major to film. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. One day Spike Lee came to give a talk and something he said really stuck with me. He said, “When you are out of school nobody cares what your major was. You have to hustle, so you might as well do what you want to do.” My documentary, Reflections Unheard, came about from that experience. I decided that I was going to do something that I wanted to do.
ELIXHER: Tell us more about Reflections Unheard.
NEVLINE: Reflections Unheard is a documentary that focuses on the marginalization of Black women in both the Black male-centered civil rights and Black Power movements and White middle-class-centered women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s. Reflections Unheard grew into a documentary about the Black feminist movement and women of color organizing from Black women’s political efforts, including the contributions we made and how we dealt with discrimination amongst other activists. I wanted to paint a picture [showing] that we were the backbone of the movement but that the civil rights movement was not something that liberated everybody and it is not what a lot of people think it is.
ELIXHER: Who and what inspired and continue to inspire your recent documentary, film projects and Vlog, more specifically its focus on the experiences of women of color and queer communities?
NEVLINE: Originally, the film was not going to be about the civil rights movement at all. It was going to be a much broader project about what I called “racial misogyny,” which was the specific hatred of Black women and other women of color. I was going to have a bunch of different things in there about hip-hop culture and how its effects are psychological and also have a historical component which would be the civil rights movement. But then I realized that the civil rights movement was the perfect time when all of these different marginalizations came into play. I also read Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power, which did wonderful in speaking to the experiences Black women faced while organizing in the Black Power and women’s movements. When I read that book I realized how ignorant I was. I was like why has no one really said anything about this.
ELIXHER: What about your interests in Black feminist experience, theory and politics? How has this influenced your work? Are there any authors or writers that speak to you?
NEVLINE: I would say Kola Boof. Her work is very important. If there is anybody that I would ever promote, it’s her. You know, she’s inspired me in so many ways. I interviewed her for my film [Reflections Unheard]. She is the only one in the film that is not an activist of some sort but she has just a strong voice and she is just…there are no words. She is just amazing. She is raw. She is just real and her book is really heart-wrenching but it’s like the realist book ever. So, Kola Boof and I don’t know who else. My thing is I approach my issues from an experiential standpoint. I don’t like the academic. Like most Black feminists you see are into the theoretical stuff and while that has its place, that’s not me. I’m into reality. I don’t think that theorizing our experience does anything really for us beyond a certain point. We feel this shit. So, that’s what Kola does. This is her life and this is who she is and she is unashamed to show who she is and that’s how I am.
ELIXHER: I am glad you talked about personal experiences as Black women as important. Are there any personal experiences that you can speak to that have brought you to the work that you do, specifically your YouTube videos which seem to stem from a lot of your experiences as a Black woman and a member of queer communities?
NEVLINE: There’s a lot. Definitely I would say that I’ve dealt with a lot of abuse. I have been exploited in so many ways and my character goes along with things for a while but I just keep thinking and thinking and eventually I feel like I’m in a matrix. Then, I come out of it and it just blows my mind. So that’s pretty much what it’s been like for a long time. I don’t know if that is making any sense. [Laughs]
ELIXHER: It does.
NEVLINE: Also, if I start naming those experiences then it just like the lists goes on because there is so much in everyday life that you go through. You are complicit in those things and it’s not like your fault but it’s just a part of life. Once you realize what it is, you get out of it. A lot of my videos [people] think is theory [but it’s] not. That’s from me processing my trauma. I made a video about intercourse a couple of weeks ago and that’s from me processing everything that happens and learning about compulsive heterosexuality. We all have these shared experiences so my goal is to reach out to people who are affected by these issues. It’s not just queer Black women, it’s a lot of people. We grow up watching TV and seeing all of these characters and movies that we can relate to and nobody even considers that White people can actually relate to our experiences and us. Even though they may be racialized, in everything there is a human connection. With intersectionality, it’s interesting because it’s like you can have a Black women next to you and maybe she is straight and she doesn’t understand what the queer White woman might understand about you. There are so many shared experiences and that’s what I try to bring to my work.
ELIXHER: How did your YouTube blog start? I’m thinking it has something to do with you being able to share those experiences you have.
NEVLINE: If you look at my channel, it says that I have only made videos since June because I delete a lot of my videos. I don’t anymore but when I first started the very first video I made was in response to MTV’s show My Sweet 16. They did a show where they went to Africa and I was really upset because I had just came back from high school in Nigeria. I went to school there for two years and experienced a lot of racism from my White classmates. I didn’t like the way the show was portraying Africa. I put that video out and it got really big. I wasn’t showing my face because I wanted it to be all about what I saying and then someone suggested I show my face and so I started to. Now, the shape of my videos has changed so much over time. I used to talk about so much philosophy and atheism. I’m not an atheist. I think it’s a White man’s religion and eventually as I grew, I gained more courage and I started to pretty much bare my soul and put all of my experiences into perspective.
ELIXHER: What are the issues important to you and queer communities, specifically Black queer communities?
NEVLINE: We all deal with internalized shit. It’s not a matter of whether you have it or not because I have it too. Somethings that I do, I don’t even realize I’m doing so I can’t even tell you what they are until maybe in a year. I had an experience just a couple of days ago that I blogged about where I called a woman a bitch and in my video I mention that one of the Peculiar Kind filmmakers said something sexist, too. I realized that that woman had hurt me a lot and in my mind I called her a bitch. I’m also trying to hold my self accountable because I hate that kind of behavior on my part. I don’t want to be a participant but I also realize that I’ve been raised within this culture. I think people shouldn’t get down on themselves for it. You should hold yourself accountable and just try because that is all you can do.
ELIXHER: Thinking about changes and accountability, what do you feel will allow queer communities and individuals to make productive changes?
NEVLINE: A lot of has to do with being honest. If you are honest with yourself and other people then it will be easier to hold yourself accountable and hold others accountable. It will be easier to hold discussions and talk about it. So, just honesty and a lot people have issues with that because it’s hard. It’s really hard. I struggle with it, too. It’s part of my character but I am a work in progress. Some people don’t realize that I still view myself as a work in progress but through that my difference in terms of being able to articulate these things and talk about it is actually being able to be open-minded and honest about things and not be afraid of the truth and whatever that may bring. Once you get past fear of anything, there is so much freedom that comes with that. Then, you don’t have to care about petty shit anymore. That requires a lot of internal work.
ELIXHER: What are you working on now and in the near future?
NEVLINE: I am finishing Reflections Unheard and I’m going to release that early next year so I’m definitely going to hold some screenings. I have already booked some screenings so that will be out. After that, I have a draft of a screenplay written and that is going to be related to some of what I talked about with my journey dealing with resistance against sexual harassment and assault and dealing with being a queer Black woman in the public sphere dealing with men. Not even just in the public sphere but just dealing with patriarchal bullshit as a queer Black woman and just my journey through that resistance. I’m realizing how I can empower myself. I’m also supposed to be co-producing a documentary on colorism. That is mostly in progress. I will continue with my videos. I really think it is important to have our own outlets where we own our own stuff. It’s a free space. I can own my own channel and people absorb it. It’s really awesome and I think we should utilize it. I am going to be looking at different ways to take advantage of what is available for us today.
ELIXHER: How can we get a copy of Reflections Unheard when it is released?
NEVLINE: I plan on having it screened for a while before I release it on DVD. So it’s definitely going to be screening. I have a very supportive space called Black Women’s Blueprint and I will be screening there in Brooklyn and I’m not sure where else. I will work that out when I’m finished.
ELIXHER: Is there anything else you would like to add?
NEVLINE: I just want to say that I appreciate this and I feel very blessed. Thank you!
– Interview by Blair Smith
Blair Smith is a doctoral student in the School of Education at Syracuse University interested in transforming the experiences of schooling for Black girls with particular focus on intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality.