Black women have had to become experts at wearing different masks; developing one persona during working hours contrasted by another persona once comfortably in the confines of safe, Black spaces.
In the documentary film, Gloves Off, co-directors Nadine Natour and Ugonna Okpalaoka explore a new shift in the art of code switching by following Tiara Brown, a Washington, D.C. police officer who serves to protect her community within the confines of a system that often brutalizes first and asks questions later. Brown is also fully dedicated to her other passion -- boxing and well on her way to becoming a fearless, Super Featherweight world champion.
Natour and Okpalaoka are able to tell this story because of the Queen Collective, a development and mentorship program launched between Queen Latifah, Procter & Gamble and Tribeca Studios. They were selected as two, up-and-coming, nuanced women directors handpicked and mentored by Queen Latifah and other Black creatives in the industry.
The duo spoke to BET.com about the complexities of sharing their director duties, especially once their filming and production plans were interrupted by the pandemic shutdown, and why it was so important to share this particular woman’s story with the world.
BET.com: What inspired you to tell Tiara Brown’s story in Gloves Off?
Nadine Natour: We’ve been following her story to show how she is succeeding in spaces that weren’t set up for her to succeed. We were really drawn to her story when we first discovered it and after speaking to Tiara and getting a sense of her charisma and magnetism and the genuine care she has for the two spheres of her life, we really felt like her story was an important one to share.
BET.com: How did you come across Tiara’s story?
Ugonna Okpalaoka: When we found out about the opportunity to be part of the Queen Collective and the Tribeca Studios and Procter & Gamble partnership, and we knew that their mission was to give a platform to Black women and women of color who may not always get opportunities, we knew that we wanted to look for a story that aligned with that same mission. As we were doing research and looking up different empowering, inspiring women, we came across a local news article about Tiara and that her story was one that we wanted to pursue.
BET.com: What did you learn about Tiara that makes her a compelling subject outside of her professions?
Ugonna Okpalaoka: Tiara has a tenacity that is just inspiring. She’s had every challenge you can think of thrown her way but what really left an impression on us was, the very first time we met, she had a huge smile, very bubbly, very high energy and she kept that same demeanor throughout our experiences with her. Everyone around her and her closest family and friends will tell you the same, that Tiara is someone that brings a light into whatever room she walks into and you wouldn’t know that she’s been through half of the things she has. That’s something that I personally admire and something I think has resonated with me since getting to know her.
BET.com: How have you adjusted to filming and post production during the lockdown?
Ugonna Okpalaoka: It’s definitely been a challenge because creating a film is so much about the team effort. So, figuring out how to still have seamless communication, exchange ideas and complete this vision that we had has required some adjustment. Even in just talking to people over Zoom calls and doing pick-up interviews with Tiara over the phone and trying to create a story that still captures the essence of what we set out to do.
Nadine Natour: The other thing is it has definitely required a lot of creativity and brainstorming on how to move forward with the disruption and be creative about using the material we had by telling the story we want to tell and try to move forward with keeping the vision of what we wanted to capture in mind.
BET.com: Prior to the disruption, what was it like co-directing a film and working so closely together?
Ugonna Okpalaoka: One thing that has worked to our advantage is that Nadine and I have been friends for a really long time, for more than seven years. We were even roommates at one point. We naturally have a dynamic that allows us to communicate and understand each other and achieve the same goals. A lot of times people ask us who is the director and who is the producer, but we kept swapping hats throughout the process and just picking up the slack wherever we needed to. One ongoing joke we have is that we’re sort of each other’s Yin and Yang. There are days when one of us is like ‘I don’t feel like I can do this anymore. I’m tired, I’m frustrated.’ The other one, thankfully, will be in a better mood and more high-spirited and can prop the other person up and vice-versa.
Nadine Natour: We definitely have strengths that complement each other and have gone through the process from beginning to end. It’s been such a wonderful experience to have with Ugonna. Working together, I think, has made the film a better film than if it was one person.
BET.com: How does it feel to have your film included in the Queen Collective?
Ugonna Okpalaoka: I mean it’s pretty cool if you want to summarize it. This is the second year that the program has been around so I think the two films that came out last year and seeing how much those two filmmakers took away from their experience only revved us up to be even more excited about what was in store for us. Obviously this has been a difficult year, or at least the last two months have been, but knowing there are programs like this that can support artists through whatever challenges they face, whether it’s circumstantial or systemic, is encouraging.
It’s been great as two women of color, who have faced their own set of challenges professionally and personally, to be able to bring those experiences into a program like this and have it inform our film and use this opportunity to give an opportunity to someone as inspiring as Tiara. To me, that is the most fulfilling part of all of this.
BET.com: What defines you both as filmmakers, individually and together?
Ugonna Okpalaoka: I’ve worked in the television and the media industry for quite a long time, but this is the first time I’ve really made a film on this kind of platform. I hope I can say, once this all comes to completion, that I am a filmmaker with something to say and I have an effective way of getting the audience to go on that emotional journey with me.
Nadine Natour: As an individual, I would say being a curious person and that’s the great thing about documentaries. You can be curious about so much and have the opportunity to look into somebody’s life and find answers to the questions. Part of making a film is you don’t know necessarily where it’s going to go once you begin. I hope I bring a sense of curiosity and open-endedness, like it doesn’t have to go a certain way. And as a team I think we both have a dedication to authenticity. In this case, having Tiara shine through in the film and having a story that feels close to who she is being told in a genuine way.