Interview with Nevline Nnaji, Director/Creator of Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights

Jackie Leahy ’14
Associate Editor

Nevline Nnaji is the director/producer of the film, Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights, which premiered in the Smith Conference Center Wednesday night at 7 p.m.


JL: Tell me about your project. What attracted you to this subject?

NN: Well, my film is called Reflections Unheard. It’s a feature length documentary that focuses on black womens’ political marginalization between the black power movement and the feminist movement as well as what became of that marginalization. I was inspired to do this mostly because a couple years ago I was reading Elaine Brown’s book. She talks about her journey and a lot of the abuses that black women in the [Black Panther] party faced from their male counterparts and I had never heard of anything like that; I always assumed that civil rights was about equality for everyone. I’d just never heard that perspective before and my friend had suggested that, ‘hey, you should do a documentary,’ and I was like if there’s anything that I would say to the world … I want it to be about the degradation of black women in society and where that comes from and how it plays out … The Civil Rights Movement was a time when all of these dynamics exploded and were televised.


JL: Did you work at all with oral histories?

NN: I did consider recordings … oral history … now I’m thinking about the body of the film as an oral history. The film is composed of interviews and archival footage and then all of that is put into context. A lot of that footage is also of black women talking about their current experiences – it is kind of following that tradition of oral history. It’s based on personal experience and they are recalling an event.


JL: Can you tell me about some of the challenges associated with this particular film?

NN: Absolutely. I would say, well, first of all I worked on this film by myself for the most part. I brought in help, support when I absolutely needed it. That had its advantages and its drawbacks. It was a very emotional, taxing project. Sometimes I hated it; sometimes I loved it. The second thing is, I worked on this program apart from the school’s curriculum. I was not incorporating it [because] I knew that my program would not really fully support it. There were a number of nice professors who supported me, who still support me, but I wasn’t working with them, they were just there for me. I was in a predominantly white school. It was very isolating, it was almost like I couldn’t really voice what I was really doing. There was silent discrimination; it wasn’t always overt, though I did have to report a couple of professors. It became a very underground, isolating project. When I found a professor who would support me, before the semester started, I read his syllabus. [It involved] a democratic voting process: everyone pitches an idea and the class votes – half of them are made. I went in to his office hours and said, “Look, they aren’t going to choose the film.” Nobody, zero people voted for my film. [It was] at the tail end of production and part of the voting was feasibility; it was that kind of thing. I was already expecting it so it didn’t hurt as bad. It was very well received at the school but I marketed it to Afro-American studies and women’s studies.


JL: What is the work that you think/hope this film achieves?


NN: There’s a couple of things: I want people to understand that there’s a different side of the Civil Rights Movement. We’re taught certain things. There are certain faces on the forefront … mainly black men. There were hundreds of black women who really paved the way for these leaders. They made significant contributions that don’t get recognized because the media chooses [what’s seen/known]. I want people to know about their contributions. I think the primary message of this film is that nobody is to be free while others are oppressed. There were two separate movements in Civil Rights and they discriminated and marginalized the people they were supposed to be fighting for. You can’t succeed if you are ignoring the pain of others. Also, I want people to see in terms of the fact that I did it as a black woman. Most of the time, our stories are told for us by people who are not affected by these issues. There are so many stories told by white men. There should be at least room to have marginalized artists like myself [tell these stories]. I want people to know that marginalized women can create a film like this. This is a film about black women and from a black woman’s perspective so it makes a real difference.


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