NYWIFT Black History Month Spotlight: Zainab Ali

By Tammy Reese

Happy Black History Month! At NYWIFT we are celebrating the Black creators and artists in our membership, while honoring Black culture & cinema throughout history.

Today’s spotlight is on our member Zainab Ali.

Zainab Ali is an award-winning producer of independent film with a background as a senior recruiter for major corporations including Lucasfilm, Charles Schwab, and Gap, Inc. She transitioned into filmmaking in her fifties when she created ZAG Media Productions and produced two short films, including Danger Word, which was nominated for “Best Narrative Short” by the Pan African and BronzeLens film festivals and has appeared on the Aspire Network.

Her latest film, Mama Gloria, about Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen, made its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 2020 and went on to win “Best Documentary” at the Teaneck International Film Festival. It will have its broadcast debut on PBS in April.

Zainab is a life-long film enthusiast who grew up in North Philadelphia and earned a BA in Journalism from Temple University. She inspires writers, directors, cinematographers, and investors to collaborate on stories that transcend boundaries.


NYWIFT Member Zainab Ali


Who are some public figures you think aspiring filmmakers should educate themselves about during Black History Month?

Stacey Abrams, Stokely Carmichael, Sammy Davis Jr, Stephen Burrows, Mabel Fairbanks, Berry Gordy, and James Brown.


From your perspective, in what ways do you think Black women filmmakers are represented in the film industry?

I think we are beginning to get viewed as bankable and can develop content that has domestic as well as international appeal.


A still from the documentary Mama Gloria, produced by Zainab Ali. It can be seen next at the Athena Film Festival in March 2021 before making its broadcast debut on PBS in April.


How has filmmaking made an impact on you personally and professionally?

I’m more attuned to present environments and able to make choices at the moment to keep things moving personally and professionally. It’s made me more confident.


What are some of your favorite Black films of all time?

Black Orpheus, For Love of Ivy, Boomerang, In the Heat of the Night, Love & Basketball [directed by 2020 NYWIFT Muse Honoree Gina Prince-Bythewood], and Hidden Figures.


LOVE AND BASKETBALL, Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, 2000, (c)New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection


Please tell us about your role as a Senior Recruiter. What did it entail?

I hired candidates for multiple industries with finance, marketing, and tech backgrounds using social media, networking, and cold calling. I also implemented employee referral programs for my clients.


What are some memorable moments in your career so far?

While working at a recruiting firm on Wall Street, one of our clients was American Express and they needed to hire 45 customer service reps in two weeks for the U.S. Open. The salary was really low and they wanted polished candidates. I was able to source candidates from a church, which was amazing because they were well educated and didn’t care about the money. They just wanted to see tennis! Our client was so pleased that I got tickets for the event as well, and a party for our candidates. 

Also, on our last day of shooting our first short film, Death in the Family, we got a tweet from Tyler Perry congratulating us. I’m not sure how he knew about it and who we were. I thought it was an omen.


What are you currently working on?

I am working on a feature comedy-drama about an over 50-year-old entertainer turned caregiver, who takes a teaching job in a retirement community where he discovers himself.


If you could choose any Black actor to be in one of your films who would it be and why?

Jeffrey Wright! He’s a talented character actor and he’s a Sagittarius like me so I know we can work well together.


Zainab Ali wants to cast Jeffrey Wright (right) as French writer Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.


What else can we be on the lookout for from you?

Be on the lookout for a period piece about Alexandre Dumas, and Jeffrey Wright would be perfect in the lead role.


What advice would you have for anyone who wants to become a filmmaker? 

Persistence and perseverance, while remaining gracious and a fun-loving person.


Tammy Reese

Tammy Reese Tammy Reese is CEO of Visionary Minds PR & Media, and a New York award winning Actress, Writer, and Journalist.

View all posts by Tammy Reese

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