Joseph Swift

Filmmaker Nneka Onuorah Wants The LGBTQ+ Community "To Walk In Freedom, Not Survival"

'We need to do “us” for the next fifty years, no matter what anyone says'

By Michell C. Clark

In 2018, Nneka Onuorah had a plan: travel to over 100 countries to promote her documentary, The Same Difference. She didn’t have any funding or investors to help her finance the tour, so she executed her vision on her own.

After one conversation with Onuorah, it becomes apparent that she didn’t accomplish such a feat by chance. “I sold out 400-person theatres with my own marketing plan,” she tells MTV News. “They said it would take a million dollars to do what I’ve done. It took me $10,000. If you prove that you can do everything with nothing, imagine what you can do with real funding.”

That lack of funding didn’t stop her from producing The Same Difference independently in 2015 after leaving a job that no longer served her purpose. That year, her Kickstarter for the film failed to raise enough money to fund the documentary; the Queens, New York native also took on serious revisions to the project because she felt her initial script lacked the necessary detail to convey the message she sought to communicate.

The documentary, which premiered in June 2015, uses panel interviews with African-American lesbian and bisexual women to offer nuanced insights into the unspoken rules that dictate power dynamics within lesbian culture in the black community.

The documentary walks viewers through a series of so-called “rules” that dictate the way studs, femmes, and other subgroups within the LGBTQIA+ community feel expected to present themselves, and features queer celebrities including Felicia “Snoop” Pearson from The Wire, Lea Delaria from Orange Is The New Black, AzMarie Livingston from Empire, and Dee Pimpin from Catfish. Onuorah uses the dialogue that emerges to push back against stereotypes and create space for individuality and acceptance.

Since the release of The Same Difference, Onuorah has worked diligently to share intersectional stories on large platforms. In 2018, she worked as a field director on Netflix’s First and Last, which surveys America’s criminal justice system, and as a field producer on Viceland’s My House, which examines the intersection of the ballroom dance community and Black and Latinx communities in New York City. She’s currently co-producing a new show for Viceland Paris that “will break open a lot of issues around oppressed people who struggle with the idea of freedom.”

MTV News spoke with Onuorah about her guiding principles, her definition of freedom, and the responsibility that comes with filmmaking.

MTV News: Focusing on projects that spoke to you on a personal level was something of a career shift for you. How did you navigate that transition?

Nneka Onuorah: Having a plan is what relieved my anxiety. I didn’t leave without a plan. When you have a plan that you can follow, everything doesn’t seem so overwhelming. I took my time and focused on small things that led to bigger wins. I didn’t swing for the fences as soon as I got started. I focused on one thing at a time, and separated myself from anything that didn’t align with my goals.

I created a structure that allowed me to take ownership of my ideas. I had been trying to convince someone else that my ideas were important, when in reality I should have been proving the same thing to myself.

I moved strategically. I had already saved some money, started the documentary, and built some important relationships within the company before I quit. I created a regimented schedule. I would work out for the first three hours of my day. I would spend the next three hours pitching writers who focus on topics connected to the documentary. Three out of five would say yes. I kept ownership of all my projects and used the residual money to fund my next projects.

MTV News: You’ve consistently embraced failure as a part of your process — most notably the failed Kickstarter and incomplete script for The Same Difference. How do you stay sure of yourself when failures occur on big stages?

NO: Failure is what connects all. I don’t believe that people who pretend that their lives are perfect are happy on the inside. I can’t live with presenting as something that I’m not. Refusing to share how I feel is isolating — I end up alone for no reason. We could all be thinking the same things, but if no one expresses those feelings, then nobody knows. Telling the truth allows us to have the full, human, connective experience that we’re meant to have.

MTV News: You documented the Black LGBTQIA community for The Same Difference. You’re also part of that community. The former requires a degree of separation from the subject matter, while the latter is, by definition, tied to shared experience. How did you balance these two seemingly oppositional positions for the creation of this film?

NO: I did what had to be done. A lot of people stick to the communities that they’re naturally drawn to, for safety and comfort. That’s never been my truth. I’m fortunate to be a part of many communities — I’m a Black lesbian from Queens who is significantly connected in corporate America. I’ve traveled a lot, so I have significant connections in Parisian and African communities. I manage the privilege that I have by existing in so many spaces, and represent myself in a way that allows me to take the communities that I’m part of to the next level.

MTV News: Rewarding visibility can be a slippery slope, as it can potentially diminish the accomplishments of people with smaller platforms who do the work every day. How do you plan to ensure that you remain principled as your visibility continues to rise?

NO: I prioritize amplifying the voices of people who don’t have the platforms they need to express themselves on large stages — whether the limitations of their platforms are due to oppression, lack of education, legal matters, or finances. I will always use film as a tool to help people share and explain their own stories. I will always help people do the internal work necessary to understand what is happening to them as a result of society’s constructs.

I don’t focus on victimization. Every film shows people who are both celebrating themselves, and fighting for their lives. Media tends to tell the story of how sad and oppressed we are. Telling sad stories doesn’t help unless we start to interrogate what the other side of that sadness looks like. The community needs to see what it looks like for you to be great, beautiful, powerful, and bold. We all have our own flaws and faults, many of which stem from the system that we’re in. We’re also just humans. We’re still learning. I will continue to tell stories that allow us to grow together while exploring our own demons.

MTV News: What makes film such an important vehicle for capturing a community’s intricacies?

NO: Film is the most powerful tool on the planet. I’ll use my life as an example. I love Paris so much. I’m in love with every bit of it. I saw Paris on Mary Kate & Ashley and The Parent Trap as a kid, and fell in love with French culture. I had never been there. I grew up in the Paris building in the LeFrak City neighborhood of Queens. That was the closest I had been to Paris as a child. I fell in love with part of the world that I had never experienced for myself through the power of cinema. Books and film give you the access to spaces, even if you don’t have the resources to physically travel there.

Film allows you to explore your curiosity without fear of judgement — like a Black person who’s curious about a different culture, or a heterosexual person who’s curious about gay culture. People refrain from asking certain questions for fear of offending someone or coming across the wrong way. With cinema, you can watch and learn and interpret without fear. Judgement prevents the spread of information. Nobody wants to seem ignorant. Film allows you to experience and understand on your own terms.

MTV News: What responsibilities come along with the power that filmmakers possess?

NO: Filmmakers have a great responsibility. Especially social filmmakers. At times, we’re making films in dangerous situations that affect people’s daily lives. Exposing people’s stories and being present in their environment changes their lives — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. As filmmakers, we have to be aware of these things and prevent any potential harm that could come from sharing stories that people have trusted us with. When you put information into the world, you have to be responsible for the narrative that you create. You have a voice.

MTV News: Do you have any advice to offer to people interested in breaking into the filmmaking industry?

NO: Think small. Sometimes you have to work for free. Sometimes you need experience. Look at how you can be of value to people who are doing the things that you want to do. If you can provide value to someone in exchange for knowledge that you need, do that. You have to have a strategy, and take small steps towards your goal. Don’t just say you want to be a millionaire. Be specific. What job do you want to do, and why? What story do you want to tell? What’s driving you? You won’t connect with people until you start to understand that.

MTV News: You recently attended the 2019 GLAAD Awards. What were some of the most memorable moments from that night?

NO: The GLAAD Awards were amazing — not only because I was honored, but because I saw Jay-Z and Beyoncé receive the Vanguard Award. I was nominated for my work on My House, a show on Viceland that is near and dear to my heart as a queer woman who grew up dancing. The show is about the intersection of the ballroom dance community and Black/Latinx communities in New York City. I got to share space with transformative individuals who support the empowerment of Black LGBTQ people. Seeing Jay-Z and Beyoncé receive the Vanguard Award was incredible, particularly because so much of what Jay-Z talks about connects directly with what I care about.

MTV News: The 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City is coming up in June. What do you think needs to be true within the LGBTQIA community over the next 50 years?

NO: Power and authenticity. The first 50 years were about survival. The Butch-Femme dynamic came to be before Stonewall as a means of giving lesbian couples a safer way to walk down the street in New York City — because at first glance they might seem to be a straight couple. Now that we’re past Stonewall, that dynamic has become patriarchal.

I want us to walk in freedom — not survival. I want people to be their full, expressive, authentic selves. We don’t need to fit within labels or boxes. We need to do “us” for the next fifty years, no matter what anyone says. I want us to move in the world as anyone else would. If we already see ourselves as “othered,” then that’s how we’re going to walk into a space.

MTV News: If you had to offer a word of encouragement to your younger self, what would you say?

NO: When I was younger and I would dance in church, someone told me that I dance too hard. From that point on, I always tried to refine my dancing. I didn’t understand the concept of a hater, so I just assumed that they were right. As I got older, I saw that everyone who dances well dances hard. I realized that people were just hating on me, and that I had been carrying that with me for my whole life. When you’re young, you internalize so much and it becomes who you are when you get older. Do things for you. Do what you feel inside. Let that out. It’s a form of self-expression. Don’t hold anything back. Lay down all your emotions. With dance, you can’t hide anything. Let yourself go, and let yourself feel.