The Responsible Celebrity: Actors, Filmmakers Talk About Art, Activism at Blackout Festival

Attendees of the Blackout for Human Rights Festival include from left to right: Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List; director Justin Simien; Fox casting agent Cam Washington; actress Tessa Thompson; actor Nate Parker
Ciley Carrington for The Root
Attendees of the Blackout for Human Rights Festival include from left to right: Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List; director Justin Simien; Fox casting agent Cam Washington; actress Tessa Thompson; actor Nate Parker
Ciley Carrington for The Root

What responsibility do artists have to our changing times?

That was one of the questions that came up throughout the first annual Blackout for Human Rights Music and Film Festival in Los Angeles on Saturday.

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Blackout for Human Rights is a collective of activists, artists, filmmakers, musicians and more who are committing their time and talents to address human rights violations in the United States. The collective includes director Ryan Coogler, actor Michael B. Jordan, actor Nate Parker, director Ava DuVernay, actor Jesse Williams and many, many others.

The collective hosted a daylong arts festival Saturday that attracted celebrities with a social justice bent, including comedian Chris Rock, who showed up to support Coogler, one of the organizers of the event.

Illustration for article titled The Responsible Celebrity: Actors, Filmmakers Talk About Art, Activism at Blackout Festival

Of the gathering and of the growing national movement around police brutality and social justice, Rock shared with The Root a sentiment many echoed.

“It’s great and it sad,” Rock said. “It’s great that people are getting involved. It’s sad that they have to.”

And yet, that’s what many artists reflected on – that merging their work with activism was something they had to do. Justin Simien, director of the 2014 hit Dear White People, reflected on the importance of events like the Blackout Festival.

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“The truth is when I made my movie it was in the era when growing up [saying] racial stuff people thought you were playing the black card,” said Simien, whose next project is the film Make A Wish starring actor Anthony Mackie. “Stuff like this legitimizes the kind of conversation that I think some of us in the community didn’t really know how to have before.”

Star of Simien’s Dear White People, Tessa Thompson, was also on hand for a film storyteller’s panel discussion at Blackout. She talked to The Root about the confluence of art and activism, and the necessity of creating art that reflects their communities of color.

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“Today’s an incredible opportunity to see work, hear people speak, to be part of the conversation,” Thompson said. “When you’re in the business of making films you hope to be making content that starts a dialogue but you don’t often get to be part of that dialogue. And so I’m attracted to any sort of experience where I get to directly relate to people.

Thompson, who stars along with Michael B. Jordan in Ryan Coogler’s new film Creed, said many people of different walks of life are attracted to social responsibility and activism, and that, as artists, there is a desire to emulate figures like Nina Simone, who married her beliefs with her art.

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“If you are creating you have responsibility to the time you’re creating in,” Thompson said. She added that she often “goes back and forth” about what responsibilities artists have in today’s political climate, noting that “I have a responsibility to the community that takes in my work and supports me … I feel a deep sense of responsibility.”

Beyond the Lights actor Nate Parker, who is part of the collective of artists who make up Blackout, also zeroed in on the need to create art that demonstrates “what I stand for.”

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Parker, who’s currently working on a film about Nat Turner’s Rebellion, wanted his voice and name to be a part of Blackout because “all these issues are my issues, as a man of color and as a filmmaker.

“I went to Ferguson and came back angry and frustrated. And I felt like unless I’m part of the conversation that is progressive, that is going to inspire systemic change, then I need to sit down,” Parker said.  “I try, if nothing else, to disrupt the system that I think is corrupt.”

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Illustration for article titled The Responsible Celebrity: Actors, Filmmakers Talk About Art, Activism at Blackout Festival

Singer V. Bozeman, best known for her role on the hit Fox TV series Empire, was also on hand for the event, performing in the music showcase. Bozeman, who promises that this upcoming season of Empire will be even more drama-filled than the previous, also echoed many similar sentiments about the role artists must play in politically-charged, racially-charged times.

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“I always am an advocate for my people. [I’m about] any cause that’s about making us move forward in a positive way,” she said. “I’m an artist and I like to use my platform. I don’t want my platform to use me, I use it. I’m going to use my voice and the gift that god gave me to uplift my people as best as I can … I feel that we are being bold and I think that we’re being fearless and I just want us as entertainers to become part of that whole energy and that whole movement.”

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