Naturi Naughton is taking on the stigma surrounding vitilgo in her directorial debut for BET.
Naughton has positioned herself as a bonafide superstar in the world of TV and film with roles in projects like Notorious, Queens, and the Power universe. Now, she is making her foray into the directing space with BET Her’s latest project for Behind the Smile. The network partnered with producer Tressa Azarel Smallwood of MegaMind Media, who serves as executive producer for four original 20-minute dramas, which premiere during Minority Mental Health Month (July 2022) and during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October 2022).
Behind The Smile focuses on a newly promoted anchorwoman who falls into severe depression when she is forced to choose between her dream job and her vitiligo support group. Shadow and Act spoke with Naughton about working as a first-time director on the short film, her dedication to mental health and wellness in Black and brown communities and the research she embarked on for this project.
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SA: Congrats on your new project with BET. What about this specific project made you want to attach yourself to this short film for your first undertaking as a director?
NN: Well, I was really excited to attach myself to a film like this because it was something that I felt was relevant to our culture and our communities, particularly as Black women. And I felt like Behind The Smile tackles some mental health issues that a lot of us may face and I want to kind of destigmatize the conversation. Working with BET and the BET Her family was just really exciting for me to empower other women. So I jumped at the opportunity and I’ve always wanted to direct. So this is kind of a dream come true.
You mentioned that you're really excited to work with BET and BET Her? Why do you why did you feel as if BET Her was specifically the best platform for this project?
NN: This was their project [for a] mental health initiative. They have been doing this for three seasons so consistently they’ve been investing and doing initiatives that pour into Black and brown communities. I’ve always appreciated that about BET and also BET Her, which is female-centric and focused on issues that affect women. I’ve always been a fan of working with that space. I was actually in Regina King’s directorial debut on BET, a film called Let the Church Say Amen, which was a BET film. I’ve just been a fan of what they do in our communities. For me, it was like, let’s make sure that we focus on ourselves as women and as a director. They came to me with opportunity and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love BET, love BET Her.’ I’m glad that I did it. It was hard work, but I’m glad I said yes.
Now, for this specific project, it's focusing specifically on vitiligo. It is still not necessarily talked about or necessarily understood a lot within our community. What, if anything, did you know about vitiligo before being part of this project?
NN: I knew what vitiligo was and I actually have people in my circle that have experienced and lived with vitiligo. One of my mother’s best friends for over 30 years from college has vitiligo, and she was a darker-skinned woman. I actually interviewed and talked to her before I started Behind the Smile just to kind of understand her perspective of what she feels and what it’s like to go through the world every day being kind of looked on like you have a disease of some sort because of this skin disorder. She kind of expressed to me some of the ignorant things or the myths about vitiligo, [like] it’s contagious and if you touch something, you’re going to get it– [those are] myths. I really spoke to her for almost like an hour and a half and just understood her struggle.
It also causes an identity crisis among Black people who are living with it because you are losing your pigmentation and melanin. I wanted to make sure not only did I do my research online, but I talked to her and actually some other people just to make sure that I understood what the emotional journey is like for someone who is losing the pigment of their skin and then vitiligo.
Obviously, we know Michael Jackson had it. There are so many celebrities who’ve had it, but felt ashamed to talk about it. Then I think with this film, being able to have a character like Morgan who was on the air in front of the camera on the news in DC, it was about saying, ‘I’m not going to let this skin disorder stop me or take away my moment.’ And I think that takes a lot of courage.
I remember I read Terrence J's book, and he spoke about how one of the things that he learned when he first started dealing with vitiligo was that additional stress can actually lead to the progression of you losing pigmentation. Did you speak to your mother's friend about anything related to that?
NN: Yeah, her name is Marie. She’s from Pittsburgh. And we talked extensively about how it kind of gradually spread and started as a couple of spots. And then overall, she didn’t say that stress-induced it. She felt like it was really just like one spot and then it spread over the years. And she’s been dealing with it for decades, like at least three decades.
So I think that when you think about Terrence J, for example, and I know he suffered in struggles with it, too, and I think he handles it so well and with grace. But him being someone who’s a host in the public eye, it’s a choice sometimes of ‘Do I cover it up? Do I not cover it up?’ Which is also what Behind the Smile is about. Sometimes with makeup you feel like, ‘OK, well, I can hide it with makeup, and maybe people won’t be as alarmed or accept it.’ But at the same time it’s like, look, this is a real thing. When someone has cancer or a woman is struggling with losing her hair, it’s her choice if she wants to wear weed to cover up her baldness or not. But it doesn’t mean we should judge either side. We should embrace that. This is something that the person is going through.
So when I spoke to Marie, she didn’t talk about stress-induced it or making it worse. She talked about how when it got worse, and she couldn’t hide it anymore because she tried to hide it with makeup and it wasn’t working. And she was dealing with this in the 70s when a lot of people didn’t even know it like it was. So I think it was hard to explain because a lot of people are like, what’s happening?
And now obviously we’ve seen more people know like Terrence J even Winnie Harlow and beautiful people embracing their vitiligo. But it wasn’t always something that was talked about, particularly in our community.
How did speaking with your mother's friend Marie, and then obviously I'm sure you did other research, how did that go into the choices that you made as a director while working on this?
NN: One of the things I remember is feeling shunned. Marie said some people don’t want to touch a door after you or touch things after you. Even feeling like in your own friendships, people treat you differently. And I wanted to show private moments with the lead character of my film, Morgan. I wanted to show this scene where she’s really just kind of in her living room, in the darkness and feeling like she’s losing a bit of herself, including her own friends and her community. I shot the film by picking different angles that were extremely high, like above the character, which makes the character look small, or shooting from underneath the character, which can make the character look bigger, which is a powerful stance a lot of times.
But I use different moments in the script that weren’t necessarily written. I kind of use those moments in. It’s a scene where she kind of breaks down on the couch, and she’s on the floor and she’s crying. There’s also some scenes where she throws the makeup and just she’s disgusted with the idea of having to cover up her vitiligo with makeup. And I just told my actress, ‘Go there. Just don’t be afraid to kind of fully go there emotionally.’ And she did.
Talking to Marie and doing my research and even talking to Winnie Harlow and just looking at how different people deal with it. I wanted to show that there’s something powerful also, not just the pain. There’s something powerful when my character chooses to use the makeup wipe and take off her makeup and go on air without makeup, which her boss doesn’t want her to. She could lose her job, but sometimes you have to be courageous and take risks in order to show the world that you’re proud of who you are.
Ultimately, what are you hoping that viewers take away from this film? What myths are you hoping to debunk? What education are you hoping to impart?
NN: The myths I hope to debunk are de-stigmatizing the people who live with it by not treating them differently or thinking that it’s contagious or there’s something that you can do to get this disease. It’s really not anyone’s fault. And I think those are some myths that some people think, ‘Oh, maybe I did something, or was I in the sun too much? Or did I use some cream?’ It really isn’t about that. And it really sometimes just it could be hereditary. It could be just genetics. It could be just the way life happens. So I hope to take away some of those myths.
I hope to inspire and kind of encourage others, whether it’s about a skin disorder or not. It’s really just about getting help because The Couch, which is the name of the series, I hope that it really encourages people to seek help. And don’t be afraid to go sit on someone’s couch, which could mean therapy, which can mean counseling for you or a spiritual advisor, whatever that looks like for you. I hope that it encourages people to take a risk to, to say that you’re not OK if you’re not OK, and to seek help when you need it no matter what you’re going through.