Meet Nneka Onuorah, One of Hollywood's Most Dynamic New Directors
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Filmmaker Nneka Onuorah (@nnekaenergy) grew up in a storytelling family. “We sit around [on] holidays and just tell each other stories,” says the Queens, N.Y., native who relishes making films about society’s ostracized.
In a childhood rooted in theater, dance, and church, the arts have long played a role in Onuorah’s life. “I was raised around my grandmother Annie Stanley, who was a secretary at Eternal Life Baptist Church in Queens,” Onuorah, who also frequently worked there and participated in activities, says. “There’s a lot of performance [in church],” she continues, referring to the dancing and singing, attributable to helping develop her early artistic gifts.
While a student at LaGuardia Community College, Onuorah initially pursued a career in psychology. But a BET internship changed everything: “I said, ‘I’m just going to do this for fun.’” Onuorah, however, was smitten and switched her aspirations to entertainment, quickly moving up the TV ranks from intern to associate producer to producer, earning credits on such shows as Black Girls Rock!
Onuorah’s titles include filmmaker, activist and producer. PHOTO BY JOHN LAMPARSKI/GETTY IMAGES
“I WANTED FULL CONTROL OVER HOW I COULD TELL A STORY.” –NNEKA ONUORAH
Onuorah, whose mother is African American and father Nigerian, later focused on directing her own projects outside the constraints of a media behemoth. “I wanted full control over how I could tell a story,” explains the creative, whose inspirations include Audre Lorde, Bob Marley and Michael Moore.
For her debut film, 2015’s documentary The Same Difference, Onuorah looked within to tell a story near and dear to her heart. The documentary focuses on gender dynamics in the Black lesbian community, Onuorah herself having faced questions she found “ignorant” like, “Are you the guy or the girl?” when she came out as lesbian. The film gives voice to those “triple oppressed being Black, a woman and a lesbian” and earned a GLAAD nomination for outstanding documentary.
Onuorah’s 2021 HBO film, The Legend of the Underground, co-directed with Giselle Bailey, focuses on youth navigating Nigeria’s unbridled discrimination against LGBTQIA people. Executive produced by John Legend, Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius, the provocative verite documentary, which debuted at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, highlights the draconian laws that make gay sex punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Onuorah stresses the desire to make a film without harmful stereotypes. “A lot of people come to Africa and want to show the negative side,” she says. “We just wanted to focus on what a day for [the subjects] looks like. One minute you can be in your heels dancing and having fun. The next… go viral on social media. The next… get arrested.”
On March 25, the Onuorah-directed Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls reality competition series premiered on Amazon Prime Video. Later this year, in partnership with MACRO Films (2021’s Oscar-nominated Judas and the Black Messiah), Onuorah comes full circle with her dream project, Truth Be Told, a look at the people and culture inside the Black church. “I’ve had this story burning inside of me since I was a kid,” she says. The hybrid docuseries features interviews with the likes of Cedric the Entertainer and Tichina Arnold, along with scripted content. Onuorah reflects on the magnitude of this moment: “Now I get to tell [the story] in my own unique, funny, bold, hilarious, honest way. No one has seen anything like it.”