It’s #ThrowbackThursday, which got us thinking about that time in 2016 when Ashton Sanders broke barriers portraying the withdrawn and confused teenaged Chiron in the 2017 Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. Aside from that year’s grande finale upset at the Oscars, Sanders would prove instrumental in presenting a little-seen, but nevertheless much-needed version of black masculinity onscreen.
Three years later, Sanders’ career is booming, with upcoming appearances playing RZA in the upcoming Wu-Tang Clan docu-series (with the rap pioneer’s blessing), and as lead character Bigger Thomas in the dramatization of Richard Wright’s Native Son, adapted by award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Sanders is also not done pushing against expectations, as evidenced by his appearance in Another Man’s Spring/Summer cover story, in a series of non-gender-conforming looks.
“It was crazy, but it came to a point where I had to adapt and accept my destiny,” Sanders tells the magazine. “So these last couple of years have been exactly that, just trying to stay present in it all. I have embraced spontaneity. I don’t like being in one place for too long, so this life works out for me. I just try to stay as close to my heart with my film choices as possible. I’ll never sign on to anything I don’t feel is right. ... So almost without me knowing it, the trajectory of my career has been brewing.”
“[E]ach choice I make has something to say, that’s what I’m trying to build. It’s not just artistic fulfillment, but doing something right socially, and politically, through my work. Whether it’s a studio or indie, I go in with the same attitude. ... I play a rebel to the system, infiltrating this authoritarian, repressive state. It’s an allegory that is right on time.”
So what does it look like to be a young black male actor playing against type? As Sanders tells it, nonconformity is in his blood, in large part due to having a professional artist as a father.
“My father was very supportive of whatever I wanted to do creatively,” Sanders says. “He was a fashion designer, he would go around sketching all the time, he was definitely an artist, full circle. That support was a big force getting me to where I’m at right now.”
Also a factor? The Amazing Grace Conservatory in Central Los Angeles, the all-black performing arts school Sanders entered in adolescence (Issa Rae, Shameik Moore and Kheris Rogers are also alums).
“I found my artistic integrity there. I found myself there,” he says. “I was able to be around all these like-minded kids, able to open up and find a community, finally. Finally, I didn’t feel judged. I was accepted for my odd quirks. They weren’t weird, or even if they were, it was, ‘that’s OK, dude’. That’s fine, that’s you. To be accepted for that? That was fucking cool.”
Speaking about his leading role in Richard Wright’s seminal work, Sanders is hyper-aware of its importance in black culture, as well as the implications for the culture at large.
“Bigger, my character, is this Afro-punk, so he already feels isolated from the world by being a black man, but there’s another isolation from being not the ‘average’ black man in America, so you get the backlash from your own people,” he admits.
Will Sanders be granted the space to find his way—as different as it may be? We hope so, because in the widening spectrum of blackness must come the space to grow, to dream, and yes, to be different.
“I love putting myself aside and putting on different personalities. It’s an escape, and it always has been. That’s the reason I started doing this,” Sanders says. “Acting has always been that for me. It’s liberation.”