It took several attempts for the stars to align for Lizzo and documentary filmmaker Nneka Onuorah. Luckily for fans, they finally did on a new reality competition series about Lizzo’s background dancers, the elite Big Grrrls.
The groundbreaking eight-part series “Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” follows 13 plus-size aspiring dancers who are striving for a place on Lizzo’s tour. From the start, Onuorah knew she wanted to push the boundaries of the reality television genre.
“For my whole career, I’ve been telling authentic stories of nuanced communities, of people who are othered, and I wanted to make sure this was no different,” she says. Her previous work includes GLAAD Media Award–nominated documentaries “The Same Difference” and “The Legend of the Underground,” as well as directing President Obama on “The G Word With Adam Conover.”
“I want to change the genre to ‘docu-ality,’ ” says Onuorah. To achieve this, she set out to create an “immersive experience” that tells the individual stories of the dancers. The director made the unprecedented choice to shoot vérité-style at the contestants’ shared house; instead of intentionally leaning into specific story beats, “I was walking around finding organic moments that already existed, because those are the best moments.” Breaking the mold meant embracing methods that don’t follow the typical reality show shooting formula. “I had to come in and rebuild the machine and say, ‘I know this is what you’re used to, but we’re gonna try something different here,’ ” the director says.
That new approach extended to other elements of the show: “Typically, in reality [TV], when directors are directing, they focus on visuals,” Onuorah says. For her, that involved making sure the wardrobe was bright and beautiful and the music matched the tone of the series.
Six or seven camera operators captured the contestant challenges from different angles to elevate the intimate aesthetic. “I want to take the cameras off tripods and get our team involved,” Onuorah says. “Let’s get the camera people in there with the dancers so they can shoot around them, shoot the beauty of them, make them feel heroic.” The director also changed the equipment to better capture the kinetic energy, as “you can’t dance and move around” with heavy cameras.
She avoids being a director who acts as a “hidden presence.” Instead, she aims to get to know the contestants one-on-one. Onuorah even appears on camera as part of the music video challenge on Episode 3. (The director was once a plus-size dancer herself before she moved behind the camera.) The episode “created a serious bond,” she says, between herself, the team, and the audience—proving that sharing stories doesn’t have to be a one-way street.
The result is a reality show that speaks to the power of nonfiction storytelling and what can happen when you enlist a filmmaker with a vision. In its freshman outing, “Big Grrrls” has scored six Primetime Emmy nominations (including outstanding directing for a reality program) alongside reality stalwarts like “Top Chef” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” She is the only female director nominated in the category.
To aspiring filmmakers, Onuorah says: “Tell stories that speak to you personally, because it’ll help liberate and honor people who don’t have that voice. See the importance in your story, even if the world tells you it’s unimportant.”
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of Backstage Magazine.