Terri J. Vaughn busts down doors for Black actors, directs new comedy

Photo credit: Terri J. Vaughn
Photo courtesy of Terri J. Vaughn

Acting opportunities for Black people can oftentimes be scarce in Hollywood. The higher-ups in the industry only open doors for a select few, but a decade ago, longtime actress Terri J. Vaughn decided she was done waiting to be granted a job and started opening doors for herself and other Black actors.

Vaughn, best known for her hilarious role as Lovita Alizé Jenkins-Robinson on “The Steve Harvey Show,” developed a production company with two other women, Cas Sigers Beedles and Rikki Hughes. Nina Holiday Entertainment is 10 years in and has produced nine television projects that have each reached over two million viewers. The ladies’ content has even received critical acclaim, such as NHE’s TV film Sugar Mommas, which received a nomination at the 44th NAACP Image Awards.

NHE is now in the final stages of finishing a film that they have deemed “the new Friday.” The movie, #DigitalLivesMatter, stars social media comedy sensations DC Young Fly and Emmanuel Hudson. It centers on DC, who loses all his social media followers. With the help of his best friend, Theo (Hudson), he’s in a hysterical race against time to gain all his followers back by any means in time for an important audition that hinges upon his social media popularity.

The film, Vaughn’s first as a director, will debut this June at the American Black Film Festival in Miami, and then it will be streaming on the film’s website.

Vaughn spoke to rolling out about how it feels hiring her famous friends and what she really thinks about fans who still call her “Lovita.”

#DigitalLivesMatter is your directorial debut for movies. What made you want to direct films?

I’ve been producing for the past 10 years, and I also have been running a school teaching acting, and what I do in class is direct the actors. So when this opportunity came up to make this movie, which starred a lot of new actors and some of my students, it made sense for me to take it.

What have you directed on television?

I directed a half-hour sitcom for ASPiRE TV, “Mommy Uncensored.” It’s their first sitcom, and it’s airing this Sunday on Mother’s Day. I like comedy, as you can see. I love what comedy does for people. I love the fast pacing of it, and I think laughter is healing.

What was the best part of directing #DigitalLivesMatter, and what was the most challenging part?

The most challenging part was shooting it on an extremely low budget. That means you have less staffing than you’d want, and you have less time. Everything was rushed, and you didn’t have a lot of opportunity to get a bunch of different takes. The best part was working with the people I was working with. The whole cast and crew was Atlanta-based, which was on purpose. We wanted to highlight the talent here in Atlanta, in front of and behind the camera. Everyone was so excited and so willing to put on different hats to make the project come to life. That’s really a gift when you’re working on low-budget projects. When it was all over, nobody wanted to leave. Everyone was so happy that everything went great. Usually on projects like this that are very strenuous, everyone’s like “Peace out, call me when you get the money!” But at the end, people were crying and so gracious for the opportunity and loving the spirit on set.

Photo credit: Terri J. Vaughn
Photo courtesy of Terri J. Vaughn

What made you choose DC Young Fly and Emmanuel Hudson for the film? They played themselves in the film?

Well, DC played an exaggerated version of himself. Emmanuel played a character named Theo, DC’s best friend, who’s a computer geek. We were lucky enough to connect with Archive Entertainment, who was managing both DC and Emmanuel. Most of the actors in the movie were managed by Archive — we created the movie specifically for these actors.

After the film debuts at the American Black Film Festival, where can people see it?

It will be released online and will stream live. People can purchase the stream at digitallivesmatter.com. We’ll start getting pre-orders ready within the next week. People can get a discounted rate if they order it before the release. We’ve never done this before, but because of the power of social media, we feel this is a pliable outlet for us.

When it comes to producing, what are the biggest rewards?

One is being able to hire people who I like, who I want to work with, and who I believe in. And giving people an opportunity who wouldn’t get it otherwise because nobody knows who they are. The other thing is hiring a lot of my friends — Malinda Williams, Vanessa Williams, Nicole Ari Parker, Vivica A. Fox, and Garcelle Beauvais — being able to hire those ladies without Hollywood sending them through auditions. These ladies have put in work in the industry for years, and I love to be in the position to just call them up and say “Hey, I have this movie I’m doing, want to be in it?” And being able to tell the stories we want to tell. We have this mission, #Don’t Ask, Just Tell. We don’t have to ask for permission anymore, we can create the projects that we want, especially given this new medium of online and social media. The more we support each other in this business, the more power we have to do whatever it is we want to do.

What else do you have in the works?

We have the platform we’re spreading with #Don’t Ask, Just Tell, inspiring new and veteran artist to create their own projects, and we’re creating a platform where those projects can live. We sold a show to HGTV. It’s a home improvement show where this couple will refurbish old furniture.

Do people still call you “Lovita”?

That’s so funny. Yes, people still call me Lovita all the time. I’m not mad at that, my introduction to the world was through that character, and I still love it. If they wanted [“The Steve Harvey Show”] to come back today, I would still do it. That character touched a lot of people — everyone thinks they’re my cousin and my auntie.

Are people ever surprised that your voice doesn’t really sound like Lovita’s?

Yeah. They’re either really relieved, or they’re mad.

For more information on #DigitalLivesMatter, visit www.digitallivesmatter.com. For more on Nina Holiday Entertainment, visit www.ninaholidayentertainment.com.

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