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The Bridge Between Art and Activism

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

As an artist or an activist, you have to be prepared to take risks, express yourself, and live with the outcomes of the work you’ve done. I use visual storytelling as a tool of meandering through those roles. For me, filmmaking is how I feel the most connected to my emotions, my identity, and my experiences as a person. Filmmakers are often faced with questions like: “Why is this story important? Why does it need to be told?” My go-to answer usually revolves around the fact that not enough stories about people like me are being shared, or at least not to the creative extent they should be.

From a Blossom writer to a Blossom reader, I have to be honest about the “film bro” clichés I’m used to. I can’t help but wonder what stories my white, cishet, male peers are itching to tell, and why those stories often lack color, in both a literal and figurative sense. With an industry so overwhelmingly dominated with one demographic and thousands of main characters that fall into the same exclusionary category, I feel the need to change the status quo in any way that I can.

After years of #OscarsSoWhite and seeing black stories subjected to white savior tales, I felt this subconscious urge to make my work more about the issues I cared about. Lack of representation is one of the most pressing issues in my field. As a creator and as a consumer of media, I felt like I’d been called to action. I thought the responsibility fell on me. If no one else is going to write our stories, then shouldn’t I be writing them? I felt burdened by it, like there was a weight I had to carry that many of my classmates didn’t.

Art by Lauryn Jackson

Many artists I look up to don’t shy away from creating “political” content. In fact, directors like Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and Ryan Coogler are known for their contributions to a more diverse Hollywood. They’ve shed light on constant instances of police brutality, the criminal justice system’s targeting of the black community, the civil rights movement, and slavery ---- but I feel as though their activism often takes precedence over their overall artistic talent. It’s because of these stereotyped Hollywood expectations pushed onto black creators that I fear being put into a box as an artist.

There’s an unspoken expectation when it comes to creators of color, specifically black creators. It seems like Hollywood only ever wants to talk about the struggles we face because of our skin color. We’re lacking stories of black joy, the simplicity of being alive and being grateful for it, or even the other trials we face as just people in general. The stereotypical expectations that Hollywood pushes onto black creators make me fear that I will be put into a box as an artist. I want to speak up for my underrepresented communities, but I also don't want to be pigeonholed or have my work boiled down to one subject matter.

I long for the days where I can see more coming-of-age stories about young black kids dealing with normal, typical adolescent problems instead of a traumatic, racially-charged experience. I’ve personally had my fair share of microaggressions growing up, but I don’t think the black experience should be confined to centuries of mistreatment that are beyond our control. Why should that be what defines us as people?

I feel inclined to create work that sheds light on the injustices revolving around my identities, but is it wrong to want more from my art? Sometimes it’s nice to be able to focus on other emotions and interests I possess. As much as I enjoy ranting and releasing anger about the injustices in the world, I usually approach my art from a softer, more enjoyable angle if there’s nothing evoking a strong response from me. But it feels like a trap sometimes, a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation where I feel I’ll be criticized whether I center my work around diversity or not.

Back in college, I took an experimental art class where an eccentric guest speaker graced us with her presence. As a performance artist and a choreographer, she uses the art of dance to tell stories. Her name is Robin Wilson, currently an Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Michigan and a choreographer at the Ann Arbor Dance Works for the past 25 years. She spoke to us about her work with confidence and passion. One particular performance of hers that caught my interest was a performance act entitled “HeLa” where she danced as she narrated the tragic story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta was an African-American woman who unknowingly donated her cancer cells to scientific research while she was being treated for cervical cancer in the early 1950s. Though a lack of proper care resulted in her death months later, Henrietta’s story carried on with the medical use of HeLa cells. Named after her, these cells are used to “study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans.”

Art by Lauryn Jackson

Inspired by Robin’s artistic combination of dance and activism, I wanted to know more about the process of her art and if she wondered about the same things I did. I asked her if she felt any pressure or obligation to make more pieces like “HeLa” that focus on the strife of black Americans. To which she eloquently responded something along the lines of, “The act of making art itself is your representation.” I was at a loss for words. She somehow managed to relieve every thought, worry, and trace of guilt I felt with one sentence.

Throughout and even after that class, I experimented with letting my passion for expressing my opinions run free. Before the burnout of quarantine could steal my fiery work ethic, I created several works that I used indirectly as a soapbox for my responses to the state of the world. One was an experimental video piece wherein I raised and dropped the blinds of a window. Each time the frame of the window was shown, there would be a superimposed video of white Americans having fun on a beach or with their loved ones. Following those lighthearted videos would be footage from the civil rights movement where black Americans are seen marching together in protests and shielding themselves from police attacks. The message behind this project entitled ‘Enjoy the View’ was to communicate the difference in experiences white and black Americans often face, even now in the present day.

'Enjoy the View' by Lauryn Jackson

Another project I completed was a filmed demonstration where I spray painted old VHS tapes pink and took them apart. I pulled out the tape in each one to represent different statistics around women in film from the minimal percentage of female crew members to the low number of funded and supported female directors in the industry.

Those works were direct examples of how I wanted to convey clear messages to my audience about what bothered me, though many of my favorite projects are more subtle in their act toward progressive change. Some of my favorite scripts I’ve written feature black main characters, simply because I wish there were more opportunities for me to watch a film and say “Hey, she’s just like me. She likes the things I like and she looks like me too.” Characters like Rob, played by Zoë Kravitz in Hulu’s now-canceled series High Fidelity, speak to me personally. I want more content about black girls who live in cool cities, work at record stores, and only have to worry about confronting their long list of exes. We need more emphasis on the lighter aspects of life while simultaneously shedding light on what needs to change.

Referencing back to the directors I mentioned before, I like analyzing and indulging in the films of theirs that I truly resonate with. Three films that come to mind automatically are Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins), A Wrinkle In Time (2018, dir. Ava DuVernay), and the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler). These films serve as great examples of achieving representation not rooted in generational trauma. Though the creation of the superhero Black Panther is a nod to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s, the film centers on the genre of Afrofuturism where a black-lead cast takes the stage in a powerful and influential way. Similarly, A Wrinkle In Time revives an old story and breathes new life into it with a modern take on the original concept, and the introduction of more characters of color. The casting choices don’t take away from the story at all and challenge the lack of diverse characters even in family films. With Jenkins’ Moonlight, the audience is entranced not only by the journey of a young man’s life but by his exploration of his sexuality and how it leads to him reconnecting with his first love. His experiences as a black man growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Miami are prevalent, but they do not overtake the plot.

Now, as someone who values art and activism, I’m trying to become more conscious about putting things in perspective through two different lenses. I’m learning how to allow my work to become fluid. I currently use my interest as a writer to incorporate more characters from diverse backgrounds into the scripts I write. I make sure to embrace the work and passions of my fellow creators while also uplifting my own abilities as a writer. I hope other creators take these words to heart as I have tried to do so. I think it’s important to speak up on your beliefs, but you shouldn’t feel confined to it.

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