Tall Girl Director Nzingha Stewart Is Already Over The Movie’s Backlash

Photo: JC Olivera/Getty Images.

Tall Girl is an innocuous Netflix rom-com about Jodi (newcomer Ava Michelle), a 16-year-old who has yet to embrace her 6’1” stature.

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But when the trailer dropped on August 29, it sent the internet into a tailspin. To many commenters, the gripes of a tall, white, conventionally attractive girl aren’t significant enough to merit their own film. Soon, the backlash to the trailer was trending on Twitter. 

Director Nzingha Stewart had no idea her first feature film was getting skewered a week before it even came out. In fact, Stewart only heard about the controversy when Kyle Alex Brett mentioned her directly.

In a now-viral Twitter thread, Brett, a legal counsel for independent films at Netflix, highlighted Stewart’s 20-year career in the entertainment industry. Stewart has directed high-budget Shondaland shows, written TV movies, and envisioned hundreds of iconic moments in music videos. 

Tall Girl marks Stewart’s step into feature films, a career breakthrough whose effects were instantly felt: Stewart already has other films lined up. For Brett, what’s a win for Stewart is also a win for the entire industry, given how severely underrepresented women of color are behind the camera.

“Before you kill a movie, know exactly who you’re trying to kill,” Brett wrote. “Black people, and importantly, Black women, aren’t getting the directorial opportunities we’ve earned and deserve. The moment I learn a new Black director is getting her first film, it’s a celebration.” 

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Stewart didn’t comment on the film’s reception, but she did retweet support from Brett and director Barry Jenkins with a message: “No words. Ok, two. Thank you. This means more than you know.”

With Brett’s intervention, the “backlash to the backlash” actually changed people’s minds. After reading the thread, people who had been mocking Tall Girl’s premise suddenly became the movie’s champions. 

As of September 13, Tall Girl is on Netflix. We spoke to Stewart about the controversy, the industry, and being her own best advocate.

Refinery29: This is a movie about a tall girl being bullied for her height. Commenters discounted that experience. Why do you think the trailer for Tall Girl provoked such a strong reaction?

Nzingha Stewart: “We’re in a weird space. It’s hard to see a movie where someone has a hard time and not say it’s about bullying. But the movie’s not really a movie about being bullied for being tall. It’s about having an insecurity and having to get over it and learn that the thing you’re ashamed of is the thing that makes you special. Because we want to use the same language as the culture, we might make ourselves victims. You don’t have to be a victim. You can just say,  I’m not being bullied. That person’s an asshole. You don’t have to internalize that other person.” 

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Is that how you dealt with the internet’s reaction to the trailer?

“Well, now, here’s the great thing. I did not see any of that until it seems like it was washed. It seemed like a couple people came forward and said a similar thing [to what I just said]. Not every movie has to be about you. People get to have their own space to talk about what feels hurtful for them. It’s not really any of your business to say their story is not important, too. It felt like when people were coming around is when I saw it on social media. I was like, Good! Universe squashed that before I even had to get stressed out about it.”

One person in particular pointed out you and how this is your first feature film. What was that like?

“He’s the first time that I saw it. I was really grateful to see another African American, a man, standing up and saying, Calm down. Calm down and let’s look at who made this movie. Do you still feel that way? It did change a lot of minds. They realized there’s a different pain they could relate to. Maybe it seemed ridiculous to have a movie about a tall girl. That’s not really oppression. But once they realized it was a Black girl they were like, Oh, I bet it’s hard for her to get opportunities. I do know what that feels like. So now I’m going to rally. It shifted the perspective. There was a different pain. And this one, they could relate to.” 

Speaking of how you got here! You had a long journey to your first feature film! Music videos, TV shows, a writer in addition to a director. That’s a lot of steps. 

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“It has been! You have to be a shark and just keep moving. If there’s a disappointment over here on your left, just keep moving. You can get in your own head and think, This is so difficult. This will take forever. Now that it’s happening, now that I did make the feature and have another feature coming up, it all makes sense. And feels like, That wasn’t so bad. But when you’re in it, wondering if it’s ever going to happen, it’s terrible. Just keep moving. if something doesn’t sell, write something else. You can’t stop or you’ll get discouraged.”

You’re in Shondaland’s inner circle.

“Working with someone like Shonda [Rhimes] on a consistent basis is great for your confidence. When you go into another situation, you feel, I’ve done this on a visible scale, and I’ve succeeded. I have the stamp of approval of someone who knows good. Little comments sometimes get made, or crew members may not trust because it’s your first time. But you can always go back and find yourself. A good episode of ScandaI, and I did great at that. I can handle it.”

Is doubt on set something you encounter? How do you deal with that? 

“For sure. You have your whole resume, but they don’t. I don’t really fault them yet, but I do think it’s something women deal with a little more than men. it becomes like any other challenge. Half of the battle is just talking to yourself and telling yourself in the mirror, It’s not my business what they think. They’ll learn when I do a good job. Don’t get caught up in the momentness of it. There are moments in Tall Girl where we see Jodi have a moment in the mirror with herself. It’s a similar thing. It’s not your business anymore what they think about you. Your business is to go, get on that stage, and be the best you can be.”

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You’re a Black woman director. How do you feel about the label following you?

“I don’t even think about it. It is harder for Black people to get non-Black movies, if you run the statistics. Sometimes, there will be a non-Black movie that I love where I do have to talk to myself. You can almost talk yourself out of it first. You have to stop that. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I can’t say no to myself before someone else has.”

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