Sheryl Lee Ralph and Zeberiah Newman on the 'Unexpected' narrative they wanted to share about HIV

ByNzinga Blake, Cortez White, Stephen Nitz OTRC logo
Tuesday, December 19, 2023
The 'Unexpected' narrative about Black women living with HIV
Sheryl Lee Ralph and Zeberiah Newman are amplifying stories of pregnant Black women living with HIV. Watch their Storytellers Spotlight interview.

LOS ANGELES -- For years, producer Zeberiah Newman worked in the reality TV space until he had the opportunity to direct his first documentary film entitled, "Right To Try," which changed the trajectory of his career as a storyteller. The film centered around a dear friend of his, who was participating in what Zeberiah described as an "underground, secret HIV cure trial."

"I had never made a film before I mainly worked in television as a producer," he said. "I had sold a few Reality shows and spent a lot of time working with real people on reality shows, and it gave me this hunger to want to tell a real person's story."

He was even more inspired to explore more stories and organizations that were supporting people living with HIV. That is when he discovered Masonia Taylor and Ciara "Ci Ci" Covin, two Black women living in the South, who both experienced receiving the unexpected news of learning they had HIV during their pregnancies. The women shared how they tried to navigate their new circumstances in a community where there was little to no access to the healthcare they needed. So the women took matters into their own hands and built a support system for other Black women in their community, who had also discovered their HIV-positive status during pregnancy, by providing them with care packages and sharing resources. Zeberiah was inspired by their selflessness and heroism, and he wanted to document their journey in his short documentary film, "Unexpected."

VIDEO: Unexpected | Watch Sheryl Lee Ralph's documentary short here

Emmy-winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph's latest effort to shine a light on HIV awareness is a new documentary short called, "Unexpected."

"Unexpected is a play on this idea that you find out you're HIV positive when you're expecting, you know, as a young mom, maybe first time child, maybe a second or third child," Newman said. "To find out that you're HIV positive when you're pregnant is a very unexpected circumstance to find yourself in."

Zeberiah knew that he needed to partner with an organization to help further spotlight Masonia and Ci Ci's story. He was familiar with all the contributions actress Sheryl Lee Ralph had made in raising awareness about HIV AIDS, through her DIVA Foundation, and took the opportunity to connect with her during a chance encounter at an event where she was being honored. Newman was not sure what to expect, but had a feeling the film would pique her interest. A few weeks later after Ralph won her Emmy award, Zeberiah got a call from her agent at the time who said she was interested in using her platform to amplify the film by attaching herself as a producer.

Ralph explained, "Stepping in as a producer on this project for me was a win-win for everybody. I really wanted to tell these women's stories. And I really wanted these stories to be heard in a way that people could hear it and accept it - a true human story"

Both Zeberiah and Ralph hope that the now Oscar-qualifying short documentary will encourage audiences to get tested and destigmatize HIV. They also talk about the importance of allyship and being a voice for causes that need more attention.

"I'm going to talk about these things that need to be heard that need to be uplifted, no matter what anybody says," Ralph said. "Because if I had listened to people, at the start of this journey, I wouldn't be doing this work."

Watch "Unexpected" on Hulu or wherever you stream this station on Roku, Apple TV, FireTV or Google TV.

Disney is the parent company of Hulu and this station.