Last June, in the wake of a racially-driven shooting of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the state Capitol continued to fly the Confederate Flag. One activist, Brittany “Bree” Newsome, scaled the flag pole, removed the flag, and returned to the ground, where police arrested her. Newsome’s act went viral.
Newsome’s less Internet-prominent achievements are many. She graduated from New York University with a B.F.A. in film and television, and has received numerous awards and honors for her work from sources that include The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and HBO. Her short film, Wake, toured several major film festivals, to critical acclaim.
Over the next few months, she will be speaking all over the country. She also wants to write her first feature film. “When a story grabs me, I tend to know when this is the story I want to go with,” she says, and adds that she wants to take some time to “see where my mind and my heart go.”
When she visited Washington University in St. Louis to speak about grassroots organizing, I caught up with her to ask about the relationship between her film and her activism, how to increase diversity in filmmaking, and where her inspiration comes from.
Do you see any intersection between your work in film and your work as an activist?
Yeah, I definitely do. It isn’t always deliberate. In high school, for instance, I did a short animated film that was about the conflict in the Middle East. Really just looking at how this ongoing feuding has to do with the fact that they have like a common root. When I was in college, I did a short PSA encouraging the youth vote. And so, I think that there has always been an element of that in my work. I don’t think I was always necessarily intentional. I’ll put it this way: I didn’t identify as an activist, you know? The activist identity is something I really didn’t embrace until like 2013. But since that time, really looking at the role that artists have always played in social movement, and also really considering—I read this quote from Nina Simone where she said that the duty of the artist is to reflect the times. I’ve really come to embrace that and really believe that.
And just recognize that art is so powerful. It has the power to change perceptions and move people and influence culture. And so even if every film doesn’t have an overt political message, I think that it’s still powerful in that way, that it can really shape awareness.
Do you see that awareness and social consciousness sometimes turning into action because of art? Or how do you see that relationship between the representation of the thing and what ends up happening?
I think indirectly. One of the best examples I like to point to is the film Philadelphia. The film came out in 1993. We had this AIDS crisis going on for a decade in the country already, but it was largely being ignored. There had already been a lot of activism around it.
The film Philadelphia stars Tom Hanks as this man who is fighting a case where he’s been discriminated against because he has AIDs. It really had huge impact in terms of public awareness, and really in changing public opinion about AIDS. So sometimes it’s an indirect relationship, but I think that the power of it is in shaping public perception, bringing awareness to things in a way that other media just can’t.
Film—there’s a history of someone changing things with its power. Both positively and negatively. You can look at negative things like Birth of a Nation, the first film by V. W. Griffith. It really glorified the Klan. It portrayed African Americans as these deviant people. It shaped this very racist public perception that existed for a long time and still exists today, really.
There’s been a lot of recent controversy—and long history of controversy—over a lack of positive representation, coming up again in the Oscars these past few weeks. Could you talk about diversity on-screen and why it is important, but also diversity in the industry and how that might relate?
I think diversity in the industry is so essential. Because diversity in storytelling, diversity in perspective is so essential. When we have more diversity behind the camera, for instance—when we have women screenwriters, they tend to write more complex female characters. It is absolutely, I believe, essential to have more diversity and inclusion.
… it’s getting even harder to separate television from film from video games from news from any of these things. So giving kids in school exposure to this equipment, and allowing them to learn what it means to be able to tell their own stories and shape their own narratives, is so key.
I think it’s also an issue of access to media technology, too. I grew up in some more privileged circumstances where I had a camcorder in my household. But a lot of especially black kids growing up don’t have access to that kind of equipment to even explore what it’s like to make films. I think one of the great things that’s happened with digital technology is that it’s really allowing more and more people to have access to that and explore filmmaking and video. All in all I think we’re on the right track, but we really need to do more to increase access.
How could more be done to increase that access?
I would really like to see more access in the schools. Unfortunately we’ve had a lot of cuts going on to arts education, even just to traditional arts education. But in the times we’re living in now with all this digital media technology, kids need to have exposure to this. They should be learning how to shoot video and edit video. That’s becoming more and more of a larger part of our lives.
If you think about it, it’s getting even harder to separate television from film from video games from news from any of these things. So giving kids in school exposure to this equipment, and allowing them to learn what it means to be able to tell their own stories and shape their own narratives, is so key.
Even though you had the access to making your own media as a child, I am curious what your experiences were like watching media as a child. Did you find things that you really related to?
Yes and no. I remember as a little kid, one of the things that first inspired me to want to make film was the fact that there were no black Disney princesses. I grew up with Disney. At that time, there was no black Disney princess so I made up my own. I would just make up my own stories in my own film. It was like, I would see film that I loved and would break them down and dissect them and figure out, “What is it that makes this a great film?” And there were also things that I wanted to see that I didn’t see, which inspired me to do my own.