Hey, I’m Nathan Hale Williams

Nathan Hale Williams has superpowers. I’m not exactly sure how he does it, but the man has enough energy and has had enough careers for three lifetimes. He’s been a child model, a classically trained dancer, a lawyer at a major law firm, a celebrated producer of television and film, a film actor, a columnist for a national magazine, a television personality, and a best-selling author with five titles to his credit. These days, he’s taking a break from a few of those hyphenations to make social justice films that he writes, produces and directs for his own production company i-N Hale Entertainment. Simultaneously he is putting the finishing touches on a documentary called It Can Be Done: Ending Homelessness in America, another book called True Diversity: Beyond the Pie Graph that is out in January 2021 and a television series based on his first novel Ladies Who Lunch and Love whose release date is forthcoming.  

Many might find his multiplicity as having a lack of focus, but Nathan would have it no other way. He thrives on multitasking with little time and sleep. His creativity knows no bounds, especially since, like the San Andreas Fault, which runs beneath his adopted city of Los Angeles, “the big one” is long overdue. Certainly, shockwaves will reverberate.

Nathan was first bitten by the creative bug at eight years old when his novel, Fire Son, was selected as a finalist by the Illinois Young Authors’ Conference. He didn’t win that year. By the time he was 12 years old when he had already appeared in theater, television commercials and film, he had gained more writing and storytelling experience under his belt. The panel at the conference crowned his second novel, The Christmas Wish, the winner—a story inspired by Jane Langton’s 1980 science fiction novel called The Fledgling about a girl named Georgie who realizes her dream of flight with a Canada goose. 

It’s hard to say what fueled his young imagination, but his mother, who he affectionately calls “Momma J” gave him free range to do so, including playing host to a bevy of his fantastical and magical friends and his stuffed teddy bear “Oxford Harvard Williams.” Momma J, social worker by day superwoman and momager by night (and weekends) was a mostly-single parent and chauffeured him around  to book acting gigs and commercials with the likes of Crest and McDonalds until a growth spurt robbed him of the child-like looks casting directors fawn over. He describes Momma J as his “primary example of excellence.” 


The absence of his father may have not been the critical wound that it is for some, as his grandfather, Big Daddy, didn’t just fill his father’s empty shoes but the whole getup. Big Daddy was a lawyer in his mind but in reality, a bus driver with the Chicago Transit Authority and a postman, since, at the time, the South Side of Chicago wasn’t especially generous to Black folk.

It was, however, when Nathan left high school. He received a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied communications. Nathan subsequently was accepted into law school at Georgetown University, becoming president of the Student Bar Association. Nathan made Momma J and especially Big Daddy proud by achieving the dream that escaped him. However, Nathan’s time as a jurist was short lived to the chagrin of Big Daddy, as Nathan set his eyes on television and film production after being inspired by an article that gave him his north star (or so he thought).

To Nathan’s credit, he has produced such television shows as My Model Looks Better Than Your Model, hosted by model Eva Pigford of America’s Next Top Model-fame. He executive produced the NAACP Image Award-nominated Leading Men and Leading Women (formerly called Real Life Divas). And he was selected to produce live action films for the Sesame Street 49th season, including Elmo’s Wonderful World. In film, he starred in and produced Logo TV’s first original motion picture The Ski Trip that debuted in 2004, written and directed by Maurice Jamal. He also executive produced the 2006 film Dirty Laundry—a 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment film—starring Loretta Devine, which was also written and directed by Jamal—a creative collaborator early in Nathan’s career. 

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Yet, in all his time before and behind the camera, Nathan was part of a plot that was not his. It took Momma J to remind him that being a contributing part of someone else’s story would have never been “the Christmas wish” her “fire son” would have imagined for himself. Since then, Nathan has created a steady stream of short films that he has written, produced and directed himself, including 90 Days, which he wrote in six hours, inspired by a true story about a riveting decision a couple has to make after 90 days of dating. He screened it at over 30 international film festivals, and it received a number of “Best” awards, including the African Movie Academy Award. His film Burden about the microaggressions that Black men face in everyday life in America premiered at the American Black Film Festival and was recognized as the Cannes Film Festival’s Diversity Showcase Overall Winner. It is now being used in unconscious bias training in Fortune 200 companies. His latest film It Can Be Done: Ending Homelessness in America that centers the homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles County is in post-production and set to release in early 2021. Nathan describes his genre of film making as “activism and advocacy through storytelling,” where the viewer can get lost in an entertaining narrative all while subconsciously being influenced by positive messages to inspire their social engagement or awareness.

The last two decades  took Nathan on a scenic route in order for him to reconnect with his voice. Although the path may have been circuitous, it taught him some important lessons an adult forgets but an imaginative child never does, much like the main character in his childhood novel The Christmas Wish; how to dream big, believe and fly. We sat down with him to discuss his journey. 


What was the book that you wrote at eight years old that was selected for the Illinois Young Authors Conference? And at 12 the year you won? 

My first book that was selected was called Fire Son. I think it had something to do with a little boy having superpowers. That seemed to be the theme of my books because the next book when I was 10 was called The Christmas Wish. I do remember that one was about a boy who read a book called The Fledgling. He dreamed that his Christmas wish was that he could go into this book, become the fledgling and fly and it won The Illinois Young Author’s Competition. 

Your father said when you were 16 that, if you were gay, he would shoot you. Out of context, this sounds serious and threatening. Was it? 

It was a pivotal moment in my life that I didn’t really quite understand to be so at the time. My dad was a physical education teacher, not just like an elevated activities coach. He was also a basketball coach and then he also became a Baptist preacher. And he was telling a story about a friend of mine from high school. This friend of mine went to Northwestern and became a cheerleader. My dad and his coach buddies felt that the guy was gay. (He turned out not to be.) But my dad turned to me and said he would shoot me. He thought the way he delivered it was jokingly, but he really meant it. And for the longest time, I was really afraid that my dad would kill me. Like it definitely sent the clear message that being gay was unacceptable and could lead to my detriment. That’s on top of all of the other stuff that I was experiencing in society. It was menacing and it took me years, well into my 30s to really process it and get past it and forgive him fully. 

Ironically, last year, we had a moment where my mother was trying to put us together and I felt ambushed. She didn’t understand fully what it’s like to have that kind of trauma with someone, where in the back of your mind, you think that because of who you are, no matter whether it’s your father or not, that they want to do harm to you. He has to own that; he has to own that I have that feeling about him. Although I’ve forgiven him. I don’t feel safe around him. Because the fact that he could even think about saying something like that to me makes me wary.

How did it impact you?

Quite frankly, I think it has impacted my ability to date and form long-lasting relationships. I don’t think that I built a healthy foundation for romantic relationships because of my internal judgment of being gay, which stems from that incident and so many other incidents from my childhood. I think it is one of the reasons why it is so difficult for Black gay men. We come with layers and layers and layers of trauma. If you intend to be in a relationship with another Black gay man, there’s other levels and levels. You’re both coming with levels of trauma that, if you haven’t dealt with it, it’s going to be doomed. Or if you haven’t met someone who you can mutually deal with all of those layers of trauma together, it’s doomed, unfortunately. I don’t think other communities have to deal with all of that. 


Well, there's one relationship that seems to have done quite the opposite and I'm speaking here of “Big Daddy.” Tell me about Big Daddy, your grandfather, and was he the one who propelled you to succeed while a young man?

He was a bus driver. He worked for CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and he was a postman. He just was the epitome of what it meant to be a man. He loved his family. He was outwardly showing them his love and emotions. There was no hyper-toxic masculinity with him. He hugged and kissed on us just like anybody else. Now mind you, he was a traditional southern man and he loved his sports. When I would play, he’d be there at all the games with my mom, when my dad wouldn’t be. But when I decided to start dancing and being in theater, he loved that too. He loved to see me excel. He just approached my gayness in a very different way than my father did. 

I remember the first time he asked me just point blank was I gay. I was in college and he and my granny were taking me back to school. My friend who is flamboyant was staying at my house during the break, and I had told my friend don’t be just a “burning flame” when I show up with my grandparents. Of course, he was in some booty shorts sleeping on my sofa. And he was totally just a friend. My granddaddy pulled me into the hallway of my apartment building, and he said, “Son, are you gay?” And I said, “Why granddaddy?” And he said, “Because that boy in there, he’s gay. Now if you’re gay, it’s okay.” And I just didn’t have the courage at that time to tell him and so I was like, “No granddaddy, I’m not gay.” 

He always wanted to be a lawyer. So, I just made him proud of everything I did, and I remember when I first decided I was going to leave practicing law, primarily, and go into production. He called me and said, “Boy, you gon’ leave that good job to go do what?” And I was like, “I’m going to produce movies and television shows.” He was like, “Son, now how much money do you make again?” And I told him. “He’s like, “You’re sure you’re going to be able to be alright?” It was just an old, southern Black man, who saw his first grandchild going to do the things that he had dreamed of doing, making more money than he’d ever made, giving it away for something that he considered like, a pie in the sky pipe dream. 

And then I remember my first film, The Ski Trip, came on Logo and I was nervous for them to watch it. My granddaddy called me, and he was like, “I’m so proud of you!” Like he didn’t miss a beat. He didn’t care about the subject matter. If he did, he didn’t tell me about it. He finally got it and then he really got it when I did Dirty Laundry, he could actually go to a theater and see the film. It really saddens me that he passed away two years ago and didn’t get to see this part of my career. 

Who has had the biggest influence on your career? 

I read this article about Debra Martin Chase, and at the time, I had intended on being an actor and being a performer, which is part of the reason why I came to LA that summer and she talked about her job as a producer and I was like, ooh, that’s what I want to do. And then she talked about going to law school and how much it helped her. So, I made the decision that summer to go to law school because of Debra Martin Chase. I was intending on being the male Debra Martin Chase and then finally met her years later when I was actually a bona fide producer and we actually had a project that I created that Janet Jackson was going to produce. Debra is a goddess to me. She is a wonderful woman. We’re friends now. I’m waiting on that right project for us to work together so it can be a full circle moment.

There’s a common thread in your story telling, be it in book form or film; a message of positivity and empowerment. Debra Martin Chase once said the same thing. Is Debra the source for why this has become thematic in your work?

I can’t attribute the tone of my work to Debra. It’s who I am. I had gotten offered to do a horror film when I first got to LA and I had to turn it down. It could have been good money and whatever and I had to turn it down, not only because I just don’t like horror and wouldn’t be a good fit but that’s not the kind of energy I want to put into the world. So, the tone of my work really reflects the tone of who I am. I am an eternal optimist. My mom says I came out of the womb smiling and laughing and I’ve been smiling and laughing ever since. 

You write what you know. The best stuff is what you know. I’m in the middle of creating a series right now and it’s based on my novel and I’m having the hardest time with it because I have to create drama in it. But at the same time, my book is a novelization of my Essence column, which was encouraging and positive and spiritual, and so, I’m grappling with those things and making sure it stays true to my tone of the things that I create. 


Why did it take for your mother to tell you to produce your own work for you to do so? What, if anything, was holding you back?

My mother is my primary success coach. I’ve literally called her coach Williams, coach Momma J. Frankly, I’ve always excelled in writing and it never dawned on me. I had it in my mind that I wanted to be a producer. I was being successful at that. At one point we had multiple shows on television. I was living in New York still and the market changed and that kind of stopped. So, I had to figure it out myself. It’s really difficult for Black people in entertainment in general to get our stories told. Obviously, we’re going through a period now where Hollywood for whatever reason, and I don’t care whatever the reason is, is now paying more attention to us. But my mother just got frustrated with the fact that I was producing other people’s stuff and she was like you write better than them and you tell stories better than any of them. She wasn’t saying that in a derogatory way. She was saying in terms of her belief in my abilities and being the one person that has seen me progress through my entire life. And she was right. She was dead on. I was supposed to be telling my own story. And sometimes you know, I do have moments where I’m like, if I had started doing this earlier, where would I be now? You can’t look at life like that. You have to look at it as your own journey. And your path is for you and everything is in divine order, which I do believe, but I would be remiss and dishonest if I didn’t say I wish I had started what I’m doing now 15 years ago. But it is what it is. 

You describe your genre of filmmaking as “activism and advocacy through storytelling.” How do you make social justice films not feel preachy or like a PSA?

Like Mary Poppins said, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” I don’t want people to feel like they’re watching a message film or reading a message book. I want them to experience a story, be entertained and have an emotional reaction to it. And that’s just good entertainment. I think it’s also going into a project, knowing the emotional payoff you want your audience to feel. All of my emotional payoffs are connected to something that I feel is socially justice relevant or personally just as relevant, which I think is social justice. Having self-esteem and confidence and believing in yourself. All those things are important to social justice, because if you don’t have that it’s really hard to do other things for the world. I go in knowing what I want the emotional payoff to be and it’s usually tied to some kind of activism or advocacy thing I’m doing. My current film, Burden, I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew that I wanted to make it entertaining, because Aristotle said, “You don’t change people’s minds through intellect, you do it through emotions.” And so, I always know that I want to infuse entertainment and emotions. I want people to laugh. I want people to cry and I want people to see themselves and then the message resonates just further.

You wrote your film, Burden in response to a few racially motivated incidents in 2018. What went through your mind witnessing the killing of George Floyd?

I was on the road with 90 Days and I was in a hotel in April 2018 and if you remember those guys, the gentlemen in Philadelphia were in the Starbucks and they were arrested for having a meeting. They were sitting while Black. And if you remember that time, it was a bunch of similar things going on than that are happening now. You had “Becky” calling on the kids selling water, the Black people having a barbecue and getting called, the man getting shot by the police officer in his own home and her saying that, “Oh, I thought it was somebody else’s house. I thought it was my house.” So, I was just angry. I was angry and I don’t get angry a lot. But I was angry and so the best way I know how to channel my anger is to create or write. 

I wrote it that summer of 2018. We shot it in February 2019. I had no idea we’d be in this space in 2020. George Floyd’s death, and I hope I say this correctly and the way I mean it comes off, it’s no more heinous than any of the other ones. We’ve seen them kill people before. It’s not new unfortunately. But what is new is we are in the perfect storm. We have Donald Trump as President, we were in quarantine, so looking away was impossible. Then we were in the middle of a pandemic and people were dying and they were losing their jobs. And so, it was this perfect storm of just negativity that people just got tired of. I think it combusted because of that. So, what I think about George Floyd is I’m grateful for the moment. (I’m not grateful that he passed away, I wish he were still here.) I’m grateful that we were in that perfect storm, because when I wrote Burden, we were just repeating the same old stuff and it would blow up here and then it would dissipate after a while. And it doesn’t seem like it’s doing that this time. It doesn’t seem like people are letting up. The protests months later are still going. George Floyd will always be an important point in the history of America because his death was the center of a perfect storm. 


What advice would you give to a young queer person who hasn’t yet had their ‘aha moment’ or know how to recognize it?

Try as much as you can and then do what lights your fire. I know this is a cliché, but it is the damn truth: do what you would do for free. The way you know that something’s passionate in your heart is the way you react to it when you’re doing it. And I’m not saying any of it is easy. I was just talking to my 15-year producing partner Richard Pelzer. I was feeling overwhelmed. I was like, “I’m tired of doing everything.” I wanted to just be the creator and I just want to show up and be the director. I didn’t want to be the one dealing with the accountant and all this kind of stuff. And so, I was having a bit of a meltdown. So none of it is easy. I have no desire to do anything else and that’s when I knew that I was in my groove and I had found my purpose. But it was after years and years of trying a whole bunch of things. I ultimately came back to what excited me and what excited that eight-year-old and that 10-year-old boy.

To say you are a high achiever and multifaceted is an understatement. What's the source of this great desire to do so many things and to excel?

I was kicking myself for being that person today because I was like, “It’s too much! You’re writing a book, you just finished the film, you’re writing a new series. Like sit down somewhere!” But I wouldn’t be happy. I wouldn’t be fulfilled. I don’t know any other way; it’s how I’m built. It is how God designed me. I’m at my best when I’m doing a lot of things. I also have just this zeal for life. So, I want to try as much as I can and see what sticks. 

You have to take advice and apply it to the rubric of your life. Just like everybody makes a different kind of mac and cheese. We all start with the basics: you need some macaroni noodles and you need some cheese and whatever, but you take the advice, you take the recipe and you mix it up your way. And this is my way. It’s what keeps me engaged. It’s what keeps me interested in what I do every day and it keeps me driven. It keeps me moving forward and not sitting around resting on my laurels. I just have that much energy. 

What’s the best piece of advice you never got?

I wish I had known that my dreams were not too big. Shonda Rhimes talks about this in her Master Class and also in her book, The Year of Yes, that she was the kid that would make up stories and have magical friends and stuff. I was that kid. I wished I’d been told then that I could do that for a living, that I could make my magical friends come to life, the friends in my head and stories that I would tell— that I could actually make money doing that. I wish that someone had given me that advice when I was younger. 


If you didn’t have to worry about being successful, what would you do with your life?

The same thing I’m doing, because if I were worried about being successful, I’d still be a partner at a law firm, or a lawyer in a big company, or something like that. I’ve struggled many times. There’ve been so many moments in this trajectory towards entertainment that I’ve had two dollars in my bank account and $200,000 worth of degrees on my wall. More times than I ever would like to count again. I could have easily done something else, made a whole bunch of money and been miserable, but I’m doing exactly what I would do if I didn’t have to worry about being successful.

Know a Freshfruit of the Week, send us your nominations and reasons why they should be selected to contact [at] freshfruitinc [dot] com with “FFOW Nominee” in the subject line.

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