"There is no revolution without art": Kendrick Sampson on activism & his new film "Miss Juneteenth"

From LyftBae to liberation, the "Insecure" actor reflects on abolition, radical change, and dismantling misogynoir

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 26, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

Actor Kendrick Sampson speaking at a Black Lives Matter protest (Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Actor Kendrick Sampson speaking at a Black Lives Matter protest (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Kendrick Sampson is quite understandably "exhausted and stressed the hell out."

That may not be the answer one would expect for the 32-year-old actor familiar to "Insecure" viwers as Nathan, otherwise nicknamed by social media admirers (and Issa, the show's main character) as #LyftBae. Between the celebration surrounding his return to the series and the acclaim for the independent film "Miss Juneteenth," audiences have the opportunity to see him occupy the worlds and roles of very different men.

He's also made the news while taking part in recent Los Angeles protests in support of Black Lives Matter and Build Power Initiative, his non-partisan organization dedicated to working at the intersection of grassroots and narrative activism. During one such demonstration police hit the actor with a baton and shot him seven times with rubber bullets, a scene that played on CNN and was posted on Twitter. In speaking to Sampson, it's obvious that his activist roots runs deep.

"This epidemic of police violence, of Black people being murdered and brutalized in the streets, and trying to organize around defunding the police and what Hollywood's responsibility is in that – that is exhausting," he said in a recent phone conversation with Salon. "We're also in the middle of an economic and health crisis, and it's disproportionately affecting Black Americans."

He continued, "Trying to navigate how to go about that liberation process, and how to really break down the facade of incrementalism and moderation and really move forward towards abolition and what we really need, and reparations, and real healing for our community is for lack of a better term to say the least . . .  it is very, very frustrating." 

At the same time, this time of forward momentum in civil rights coincides with the release of "Miss Juneteenth," the extraordinary debut feature from director Channing Godfrey Peoples. In it, Sampson plays the endlessly charming Ronnie, estranged husband to Nicole Beharie's Turquoise, a single mother who works multiple jobs to support her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze). Ronnie has little in common with LyftBae -- he drinks, gambles and makes promises he can't keep. He's also dedicated to helping raise his daughter, cheering her on as best he can even if he falls short in a few turns of events.

In our recent chat with Sampson, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, Sampson discussed the ways that "Miss Juneteenth" evokes many of the same struggles playing out in streets and cities across the country and candidly shared his view on Hollywood's public displays of allyship versus how it actually behaves towards activists.

You've had enormous visibility as of late, by way of your return to "Insecure" this season through a storyline that has been really beautiful to witness. Now there's "Miss Juneteenth," and of course, if people look closely, you appear in the new YG "FTP" video.

It must be interesting to have all these different sides of you on display right now.

It's something that I couldn't have ever planned, and I'm glad that they are led by Black women – "Miss Juneteenth" and "Insecure." And I'm glad that all of them are down with the cause, and they are getting out in the streets. Little Alexis, who played our daughter, got sprayed with tear gas, which breaks my heart. But also, you know, it inspires me that she's out there. The whole cast of "Insecure" has gotten out there. We're supporting this defund the police movement and really fighting for better for our communities, because inextricable from that movement is moving those funds out of an oppressive system that continues to traumatize us and into healing for our community. Part of that healing is – there is no revolution without art, right? It helps us communicate better. That is one of my favorite sayings in the movement: There is no revolution without art.

The fact that we're still here and that many of us are thriving, but too many of us are not, shows that we still have a lot of work to do. Juneteenth was the day that the last slaves were informed that they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. That proves it ain't got nothing to do with that little piece of paper, that it's not the person who signed the paper that gave us freedom, it's us that gave us freedom – the abolitionists, hardcore radicals.

Our ancestors fought, put their bodies on the line, got accomplices – not allies, but accomplices – that got out there, put their bodies on the line for Black freedom to fight for Black lives. . . .  That is the framework of abolition of fighting for the uprooting bad systems, burning those roots and planting something new. This time is a tipping point where we are fed up and we can't go back. We cannot go back to the world we knew before COVID.

Hopefully you can see those same themes in "Miss Juneteenth." Turquoise is not going back to the world she knew. She's seeking her own personal liberation, Ronnie is seeking his own personal liberation, and Kai is seeking her own personal liberation. And they go about it different ways and they make mistakes and they are flawed.

And they miss the mark sometimes, but . . . they find out what the real win is in life, in their interpersonal relationships. Hopefully, "Insecure" and "Juneteenth" provide some feelings for some folks and let people take the time to experience joy. Because that is part of our resistance too, but also grieve and heal and do whatever they need to do in community.

Ronnie, your character in "Miss Juneteenth" is, like you said, flawed. He strikes me as an interesting character to play in the context of this conversation about how Americans are processing Blackness in this moment in history, because in the film we see him failing Turquoise in a number of ways. So I'm wondering what it was about this character that drew you to him, or perhaps what you wanted to bring out in your portrayal?

Yeah. So when we talk about the oppression of women – for example, 55% of men in prison have mental health issues, but 73% of women have mental health issues, which shows that their grief and their trauma is more criminalized, that there are extra layers of oppression on women. And so they experience oppression from outside and within the community. If our fight for liberation and abolition is not intersectional, if we're not trying to dismantle the patriarchy and transphobia and ableism and all of these different structures . . . of oppression, then you're not doing it right. Because in order to liberate that person, you have to inevitably dismantle all layers of oppression.

But if you just focus on one layer, like just liberating Black people in general, you still leave intact the misogyny and sexism and gender inequity in so many things. So we do have to support our Black women. So in this film what I did love about it – actually I was more drawn to Turquoise and how her life was not defined by a relationship, her life was not defined by patriarchy. Even though sometimes she succumbs to the pageantry and such, she works to liberate herself from that.

As far as what drew me to Ronnie, I know Ronnie and I love Ronnie. I have Ronnies in my life and in me working to dismantle the patriarchy and dismantle the misogynoir and so many different forms of oppression doesn't make me love Black men any less. Me holding Black men accountable doesn't make me love them any less.

I know my brothers and my father, and my father was not a kind person. There were times when he was very abusive, but I love him. And I fight for better and I hold him accountable, I hold everybody accountable. That's what we have to do.

This relationship is much closer to relationships that I know than what we like to portray on TV a lot of the time. Ronnie loves hard. And to be frank, you know, the script that we had, a lot of stuff is left on the editing room floor. That is just a part of movie making. But there were some beautiful moments between Ronnie and his daughter and Ronnie and Turquoise, that when I say beautiful, they weren't necessarily always perfect, but they were nuanced. And you see how hard they love and how hard Ronnie loves and how he misses the mark. And we all know people like that. I am Ronnie. And sometimes, you know, and I know Ronnie's heart very well, and I love him as I love myself.

In these particular instances, I do have a lot of empathy for my Black people because of everything they face, because of all the different structures that teach us "survival of the fittest" and to forego community, or to strive to be as close in proximity to whiteness as we can be – that we have to speak a certain way, look a certain way, act a certain way that we can't show any weakness that we can't be vulnerable. That vulnerability is weakness when it's actually not. We are targeted by all of these systems, and we haven't ever had a time in history to address our trauma. Ever. We haven't ever had the infrastructure. You can see the result of that in all of the characters in "Miss Juneteenth."

One of the things that I wanted to run past you was this thought that came up recently when John Boyega made a speech at a protest in London, in Hyde park. One of the things that he said was, "You know, I may lose my career over this, but you know what, f••k it. I'm going to say this anyway." People applauded that and were saying, oh, no, that couldn't happen.

But as you know, Hollywood has a history of staying quiet for a little while and then possibly coming back and just as quietly preventing actors from getting roles. I spoke to Jesse Williams about this a few years ago, after he spoke about police brutality at his acceptance speech at the BET awards in 2016, and he said speaking up actually did impact his career. So I'm wondering whether you feel like things are changing to a point where performers can be very vocal about their activism, particularly pertaining to civil rights and Black Lives Matter and not have to worry about repercussions with their careers.

So before COVID . . . okay, the short answer is it is being encouraged right now to be a part of activism as an actor, as an artist in Hollywood. But a lot of people don't know what they're encouraging people to do. And they are only comfortable with certain types of activism that are surface level – more so philanthropy than anything else.

Abolition is different. Radical activism is what we need, a radical love of our communities is what we need. This world is so radically awful towards our people, and anti-Black. So yeah, abolition is absolutely necessary. These, these systems aren't ever going to operate the way that we want to by some reformist measures. They're rotten at their core. They have to be uprooted and the roots have to be burned. And then you have to plant the new seeds, you get new soil, new seed and build new systems. That activism is not encouraged. So when you're talking about real solutions that threaten the power of those who are oppressors, those who are oppressive, they will only allow what does not threaten that power. And there are many forms of activism and reform and moderation that do not threaten their power. And they encourage that.

But yes, to summarize, some activism is being encouraged in a way. We have been liberated to a point where, OK, we have a call-out culture right now. The cancel culture people will call you out if you're not speaking up on injustices – certain injustices. So people are afraid of that and trying to get into activism.

The sincerity behind it is questionable for a lot of people, and there is still a threat to your career and your personal life if you really actually threaten power and save lives. So it is not safeguarded necessarily, but we have a privilege of visibility and community. So if we're connected to the community, if we're connected to community organizers and movements and we do it for the right reasons, I believe it is more important for us to save lives than to save our careers.

If somebody does not want to work with me because I am willing to speak out against injustice and fight for liberation and save lives, I don't want to work with that person.

"Miss Juneteenth" is currently available digitally and on demand.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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