Litro #162: Literary Highlife | Interview: Jenn Nkiru
Director Jenn Nkiru’s En Vogue, an experimental, high-concept, bold short film documenting the potent vitality of New York’s voguing and ballroom subculture, marked the arrival of an exciting new voice. Possessing a visually striking, poetic style, Nkiru’s work captures stories of the socially marginalised through the lenses of race, gender and music. Of Nigerian heritage but British and a Howard University alumnus, she’s part of a diasporic group of artists who navigate their multiple identities with ease. Having collaborated with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young, amongst others, the future looks promising. I sat down with her to discuss her process and forging a path for herself in the current climate.
Litro: You’ve just launched your first ever series, HASHTAG$, on music and subculture, which you wrote, produced and most importantly directed for Red Bull Music, exec produced by Pulse Films, the same execs behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade music video film. Tell us about it.
Jenn: Yes! This is my first ever series and I’m really proud of it as it took a lot of work to get it out. My series of HASHTAG$ is actually series two of the franchise. There was an initial series which ended up being really successful for Red Bull and resulted in being their most watched. Because of this, Red Bull were really eager to do a second series and approached Pulse Films to do so. At the time I’d been writing music video ideas with Pulse for everyone from Pharrell to Major Laser through to J Cole and Imagine Dragons. This project came in the middle of that and we both agreed it would be perfect for me so we started developing ideas for it. It took off from there. This was a big project – we shot internationally from here in the continent (South Africa) through to Europe and LA and New York. I interviewed over sixty musicians, journalists and tastemakers throughout the project. We shot five episodes and four were released.
Litro: How do you think being Nigerian living in the UK and US has influenced you as a filmmaker?
Jenn: The British-Nigerian identity is a cultural identity in and of itself at this point. Moving to America at twenty-one to go to film school, and at a historically Black university at that, just added another layer to my consciousness and identity as a filmmaker. The biggest influence being the clearest sense of self: learning about my history, who I am, where I’m from, roots and culture. This level of awareness has been the most important influence in my life, making film and the content of my films itself.
Litro: Your first film, En Vogue, was shot by Bradford Young (Selma, Mother of George, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, amongst others). His work is exquisite. Bradford also became the first Black cinematographer to be nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2017 Oscars for his work in Arrival. What was your experience of collaborating with him and collaborating in the US in comparison to the UK?
Jenn: Brad is magic and his work is magic. I see him as a big brother and we come from the same filmmaking roots (Howard University under the tutelage of Haile Gerima) so that’s family. We’re all so incredibly proud of the strides he’s taken in the industry, yet not surprised. It’s more so at this point, the industry catching up to him rather than vice versa. Brad along with Arthur Jafa shot En Vogue, which also ended up being my graduate thesis film as I was still a student at Howard when I directed it. Working with both of them is like working with master artists. It was an incredibly supportive environment where I got to play and push which they embraced so it was a magical time and a treat of a first professional experience for me.
Litro: You previously worked alongside directors such as Diane Martel on projects with Beyoncé and Levi. As well as being bread and butter, how has that sort of work honed your skills as a filmmaker?
Jenn: Yes, before working as a director I assisted directors and worked across almost every department in the filmmaking process. I purposely did this and it truly served me well because I wanted to have an understanding, even if basic, across the whole production process. It also allowed me to know what my possibilities are as well as what everyone’s role is, which has allowed me to get the best from my teams. Beyond this, assisting, watching and studying directors work on set was really important to me very early on. Directing is as much craft as it is art, that muscle that needs constant honing and exercise to keep it strong. That constant on-set experience working with both commercial directors and huge talents as well as smaller indie directors and talent early on really served me well. It’s allowed me to anticipate things I never would have without it on my sets.
Litro: Can you tell us about being a Black woman filmmaker at this time and what sort of stories you’re interested in telling?
Jenn: I think more than ever we’re at a time where audiences are tired of seeing the same old thing – white male stories – and are interested in a new worldview. This is coupled and most likely in conversation with the fact that we are at an interesting social crossroads where all previous structures are being challenged and the general awareness of us all is growing. People are now awake – woke even. Entering into the conversation at this point as a woman and a black woman and an artist has meant I, and other filmmakers like myself dedicated to pushing culture forward, have been tasked with reflecting this through our work. This is a responsibility which I embrace and take very seriously. I’m looking forward to telling stories about the Black experience and putting us on screen in ways we have never seen us before. We are such a dynamic, multi-layered people who have so many stories to tell so I’m looking forward to telling our stories and reflecting us in ways that are close to who we actually are on screen.
Litro: You set up your own production company Nkiru + Nkiru which is great. What was your thinking and intention behind that?
Jenn: Independence and ownership, period. That’s my biggest aim and goal. It’s really important as far as possible for us to own our work and dictate how that work is formed, managed and exhibited – the individual that controls these aspects is the one that controls the image. If we want to see a change or improvement in how we are viewed we need to control the image. I urge all artists to exercise agency in their work as far as they can manage it. By virtue, my independent work created under NKIRU + NKIRU is my best work as it’s where I feel freest and so does my work.
Litro: You’re credited with having a strong visual style / aesthetic and an interest in sound design. What are some of the ideas behind both?
Jenn: As an artist and filmmaker, I’m constantly interested in seeing things in ways as human beings that we have not before. That is at the centre of what drives my work. I love seeing worlds which typically wouldn’t come together. I’m especially interested in getting out stories from and of people not often typically celebrated on screen; Black people and other marginalised groups. By virtue of being so focused on showing experiences in ways we’ve never seen before by default, it means the visuals will also bring something fresh. Music and sound are my first loves. I also DJ so that naturally finds a special place in my work. Visuals and sounds/music tend symbiotically to come together to create something unique in my work.
Litro: What work excites you?
Jenn: I mention him a lot both personally and publicly: Khalil Joseph. His work is magic and as a contemporary Black filmmaker working in the industry, it’s so affirming to see someone at the top of their craft who comes from a similar thought space be so embraced by the industry and audiences. What strikes me most about his work is he showcases black people, black experiences and spirituality in such a visceral way. Something I am committed to also and that’s what truly excites me about his work.
Litro: Ava Duvernay’s success has been wonderful to watch. Her tremendous documentary 13th was nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta. Do you draw any inspiration for how she’s carved a path for herself and if so what?
Jenn: Ava is a force and incredibly inspiring. I’m so glad we have her. Whilst I was a student at Howard University. Ava was readying her first narrative feature film, I Will Follow, for release. She called upon us, students and faculty at Howard University to play key roles in distributing her film in the DMV (DC, Maryland and Virginia) where our film school is based. We were tasked with selling out every single screening of her film, which we successfully did. That was the first time I noticed her magic and ability beyond being a great filmmaker to be a great leader. That’s particularly what inspires me, her ability to lead and most of all that she does so independently thus making her model sustainable. That is incredibly inspiring to me.
Litro: How often do you visit Nigeria? How does your connection with it reflect in your work?
Jenn: I don’t visit Nigeria as much as I used to or would like to so I’m eager to change that soon and connect with other Nigerian filmmakers committed to enhancing, pushing and progressing us as a culture and a people. Growing up I had parents that made my sister and I culturally very aware of where we’re from geographically and traditionally, so naturally, whether overtly or more abstractly, there is always that connection in my work, whether it be in the pacing, story, music or general approach. I’m incredibly proud of my culture and it’s intrinsic to me as an individual and to my style as a filmmaker. I truly wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am without it. For that, I’m both grateful and proud.
Litro: You’re highly involved in the discussions about Black cinema and film. Where are we when it comes to that? What has to be done?
Jenn: We still have a long way to go but we’re getting there slowly. Small changes are being made. We all cumulatively regardless of race need to keep challenging the status quo but as Black people need to lead that charge. I think for the longest time, the belief was that audiences felt only certain stories were relatable, worthy of cinema and would sell. In the last couple of years especially, that belief is slowly being dismantled as audiences are showing they want something different, they want stories and perspectives, the kind till recently that haven’t been celebrated on screen. Moonlight the movie is the most recent and direct example of this. For the longest time, there’s been a cloud of erasure both socially and historically when it comes to stories of people of colour. In order for things to continue changing we need to widen the scope of who is greenlighting / commissioning projects. The more range of individuals from broader backgrounds, colours, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds we have in power positions, the more likely we are to see a wider range of stories. We need to see ourselves to know we exist. We all want to see stories that reflect our humanity and our society and to do that those stories have to be colourful. There’s so much more that unites us than separates us and life is just so much more interesting that way.