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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Interviews

Danielle Deadwyler on Honoring the Labor of Black Women

"I think diving into the darkness is where I’m finding illumination on what pleasure really is," the actor-artist explains.

By Jasmin Hernandez
Photography by José Ibarra Rizo

October 10, 2023

Danielle Deadwyler, 2023, photo by José Ibarra Rizo.

Danielle Deadwyler holds so many worlds inside of her.

The born and bred Atlantan—a multidisciplinary performance artist, poet, actor, and filmmaker—pours intellect and emotional opulence into her crafts. Deadwyler delivers magnetic film and TV characters that keep us transfixed to our screens. In the feature film Till (2022), which recounts the lynching of a teenaged Emmett Till at the hands of a racist white mob, she channels Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, with reverence and a quiet power. Deadwyler portrays the civil rights leader’s fortitude, which sits alongside Till-Mobley’s mourning. As the gutsy Cuffee, a queer gender nonconforming bouncer (based on American soldier Cathay Williams) in The Harder They Fall (2021), they repeatedly prove to cis het Black men to never be underestimated. In the series From Scratch (2022), Deadwyler plays Zora Wheeler, the overly supportive older sister who at times has to shelve her own victories to console her grieving, narcissistic younger sister, Amy Wheeler (Zoe Saldaña).  

In projects like Till and From Scratch, threads of Black families, kinship, grief, trauma, race, and Black motherhood are woven together, and especially through the lens of Black women’s labor. These themes resonate in Deadwyler’s actor-artist life. She’s tapped her lived experiences and ancestral histories for these outstanding screen performances. Deadwyler portrays Mamie’s warm moments with Emmett (advising him to “be small” when he heads to the South) and shows her tenacious advocacy for Emmett’s justice. This act of love and labor was a form of activist labor important for the national civil rights movement. As Zora in From Scratch, Deadwyler’s character demonstrates continuous (and exhausting) emotional and caregiving labor to her sister, dying brother-in-law, and other family members, many times in silence.

Danielle Deadwyler, 2023, photo by José Ibarra Rizo.

Deadwyler plays multidimensional Black women on-screen, and she returns that devotion to Black women in her art making. She crafts truth-telling performance art and experimental films centered on Black women’s domestic and sexual labor. In a 2021 solo exhibition, Will (to) Adorn (inspired by a Zora Neale Hurston quote) at the MINT gallery in Atlanta, Deadwyler referenced the Atlanta washerwomen strike of 1881 and examined Black women’s ceaseless cycles of labor. “Lenticularities” is another installation of note by the multitalented artist. It featured expressive self-portraits (printed iPhone images painted over with acrylic, oil pastels, etc.) that hung like laundry on a clothesline. The piece “Chinnamasta” also contained found objects related to the work of washerwomen: an antique wooden wash bucket. Deadwyler’s self-portraits seemed to represent the many faces of anonymous Black women who’ve been, and continue to be, backbones of households and communities (and primarily Black mothers too). The clothespins and wash bucket, metaphors from the historic strike, also symbolized the 3,000 Black women who mobilized and used political action for their demands. 

That same year at another solo show, Object-Subject: Flaw Is the Only Recourse, at CUE Art Foundation in New York (curated and mentored by Tiona Nekkia McClodden), Deadwyler showed three bodies of work, including the short film CHOR(E)S (2020), where the artist, in a shoulder-length silky wig, choreographs herself into a state of ecstasy and reverie alone in a domestic space. Repetition is a constant motif in Deadwyler’s art practices, which she likens to “endurance,” and the repetitive choreo and movements (almost ritualistic) in CHOR(E)S speak to the marathons of labor Black women constantly perform.

Deadwyler is a daughter of Black Atlanta. Since childhood, she has been immersed in the city’s offerings in creative writing and dance. She also participated in theater programs, such as Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company. At Spelman College, her undergrad alma mater, she felt at home, and sisterhood was utmost and crucial. Her Spelman sisters included “homegirls who went to high school with me,” and in those moments when Deadwyler needed affirmations, her best friend, also at Spelman, was right beside her. Artistic solidarity with Black women resides within Deadwyler, from Atlanta to Hollywood and all the spaces in between: her art, writing, film directing, acting roles, etc. Both Deadwyler and Till’s director Chinonye Chukwu experienced Hollywood’s systemic misogynoir in the blatant Oscar snubs for their film. And this past awards season, we witnessed the ways Black women bring creative excellence and nuance (Beyoncé, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Gina Prince-Bythewood), time and time again I might add, and are still dismissed and devalued by these institutions. As more and more Black women lead film and TV projects (Deadwyler has collaborated with several), it’s mighty evident how Black women writers, directors, producers, and actors should really run this shit.

Forthcoming for Deadwyler are a slew of projects, including the lead in Parallel, a sci-fi thriller co-starring brothers Aldis and Edwin Hodge (slated for late 2023). Also the upcoming group show In Unity, as in Division at the Johnson Lowe Gallery, where Deadwyler and six other Atlanta-based artists are essentially showing seven solo micro-exhibits. 

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May over Zoom, Deadwyler is fresh-faced in a white V-neck tee and a Lugz baseball cap. We share an intimate conversation on her star-making acting roles, spiritual ties to Mamie Till-Mobley, personal references to her matrilineal line in her art and experimental films, and the joy of pandemic babies. Deadwyler contains multitudes, and there’s only more future brilliance from her that awaits. 

From Till (2022), dir. Chinonye Chukwu, photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon, courtesy Orion Pictures.

Jasmin Hernandez: First off, happy belated birthday, because you’re a Taurus, my birthday is next week, and Till’s director, Chinonye Chukwu, is a fellow Taurean too. So I was really appreciating all this big Taurean energy during my research!

Danielle Deadwyler: It’s our time. It’s our season! [Laughs]

JH: In Till we see Mamie Till-Mobley’s heart, resilience, and fundamentally just a mother’s love for her child. There’s a tenderness that Chinonye Chukwu brings on-screen. Can you talk about the care a Black woman director brought to Emmett Till’s story.

DD: Oh, the ultimate. This film doesn’t look the way it looks without my comrade Chinonye. She was the one who was integral in saying, and intentional in saying, that we will not show violence. It’s just like womb-holding the audience and the self. So, if you care for yourself, then you have the potential to care for others in the same way. And I think that that’s how she went about it, and that’s how we went about it together. The discussions, the preparation, and the visceral need to tell things right, to tell things lovingly. To tell truths with the difficulty and the tenderness and the vulnerability and the rage that Black women possess and need to express. And then the softness and the quietude. You don’t have the dynamism unless you have somebody like her. [Laughs]

JH: Your activism began at a young age: you volunteered at Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked with community leaders who knew Mamie. You’re also a mother to a Black teenage son. Do you feel a spiritual bond with Mamie? 

DD: I do. I mean, we can all just do the six degrees of separation kind of thing with everyone, and then that therein means that we’re all connected, right? And the way that she has continued even in her ascendance to inform us, to love on us, to echo beyond the realms of her Chicago home, beyond the realms of her Mississippi origins, beyond the realms of the grave, right? Like, she’s constantly talking to us—even so much as being mentioned, most recently, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner by Biden. At a time when presidents, in her lifetime, in 1955, they weren’t trying to do right. And still folks not doing right. And not bringing justice to the family in the way that it should be. It’s a proper haunting that this country will not be able to ever evade until they do right. Until justice is had. And I know that’s what the family persists in doing, even after learning of the death of Carolyn Bryant. It’s an unceasing effort to love and care for the memories of Mamie and Emmett. You can’t not persist

A photo of Danielle Deadwyler who leans against a tree, in a park or forest, wearing a white short sleeve button up and blue jeans.
Danielle Deadwyler, 2023, photo by José Ibarra Rizo.

“Give us more money, give us more leaders who are also Black women supporting us to do what we do.”

JH: You took on Till while shooting From Scratch, which also deals with close ties and grief amongst Black families. How did you start to feel your rhythm for both characters? 

DD: By the time that I’d learned that I’d gotten Till, I was deep in the groove of From Scratch. But there is overlap in the way that Black people deal with grief. In the way that we seek joy in the slippage of the pain. I started reading the memoir—I literally dived into the memoir a little bit slowly while fully still swimming in From Scratch. Rhythm isn’t really found until you’re in the production. Because there’s an experience of processing intellectually, mentally, of interrogating, right? And researching. But then when you’re dropped into the somatics of the experience, that’s a whole ’nother thing. Then that’s also a spiritual taking over, or a spiritual consumption, where you willfully give yourself over. This intellectual shit is just gobbledygook to a certain point. And then it begins to undulate, and be cosmic, when all of the parts, the people, come together.

JH: You’ve acted in several Black women–led film and TV projects: Chinonye Chukwu and Whoopi Goldberg [your co-star and producer] in Till, the Locke sisters [showrunners Tembi and Attica] and director Nzingha Stewart in From Scratch, and Katori Hall on P-Valley. What nuances did you see and feel on these projects?

DD: Blackness, it’s blackness! [Laughs] We get each other in a certain way, and we’re all so different. I studied American history and American literature at Columbia, and my master’s is in interdisciplinary studies. I did my work on Black female strippers in the South. I wanted to dance [laughs], but things panned out differently. But I knew I had to get in there. I had so many logged hours in the strip club, and I knew that I had to be a part of that kind of ode. And had read the play [Pussy Valley] and wanted to do Katori’s play and all those things. When you’re invested in the community and the environment, and then you become a part of the thing, that’s where you know nuance is being driven appropriately. You know, even down to Patrik-Ian Polk is an EP on the show. When you talk about queerness, and you talk about transness, like these aren’t people who are not of the world. These are people of the world. So when you’re of the world, you can tell the story appropriately and lovingly. The Locke sisters, they’re telling Tembi’s story with some fictionalization because it’s so deeply personal, so deeply intrinsic. Loss doesn’t go away. It just begins to transcend and undulate in a new way, leaving a different way. Navigating that kind of relationship, interracial relationship, blending of the families, transcending all of that familyhood, sisterhood, and the romantic dynamic, and the family dynamic. Like, all that stuff is just known to them, and yet free enough to allow all of us to come in, in various capacities of cast and crew, to have our own intuitive spin on it. I think Black women are leading in how to be appropriate griots. Give us more money, give us more leaders who are also Black women supporting us to do what we do. I mean, just get out the way! [Laughs]

Danielle Deadwyler, 2023, photo by José Ibarra Rizo.

JH: I want to talk about the spring 2023 group show The Alchemists [co-curated by Donovan Johnson and Seph Rodney] at Johnson Lowe and your Kitchen Installation #1 [2013] short film. You’re dressed in skimpy lingerie, sensually scrubbing an oven while a chopped and screwed version of French Montana’s “Pop That” plays. So many layers here—the exploitation of domestic and sexual labor of Black women going back centuries and the normalized misogynoir in male-dominated hip hop culture today. 

DD: Oh, I was wild, wild. [Laughs] Is this ten years old? It’s so crazy to still be engaging with it. I think of it in a nonlinear capacity, right? Like, that’s our experience. That’s why we can understand things so deeply and with great nuance. It came out of a place of trying to navigate motherhood and trying to navigate partnership, and reckoning with that on a generational level. What was it like for my grandmother to do this? How the fuck did she do this with eight kids? What was it for my mom to do it? How she did it with four kids and I got one! [Laughs] Then also coming off of those grad school themes of sexual and domestic labor. Thinking about where labor is performed, the shadowy nature of sex labor, the illuminative nature of civil or administrative labor. Or thinking of civil rights labor, and how certain women are pedestalized or not pedestalized. The literal pedestalization of a stripper in platform heels or the stage pedestalization of a woman who does “moralistic work.” And how the line is blurred between these two beings. And feeling myself oscillating between the two, and engaging in both those spaces, and really fighting to not be wholly present in one or the other. It was a part of when I did a Spelman Black Box performance at the museum, and those works were a part of that live performance [titled (dis)possessed: the live mixtape, in 2013]. It’s just questions. There aren’t answers. Just trying to seek agency and slip through cracks to get to some kind of liberatory practice. 

JH: You and six other Atlanta-based artists are showing at Johnson Lowe’s upcoming fall group show, In Unity, as in Division, this September. I know the exhibit has no unifying theme, but anything you can share?

DD: I can’t! [Laughs

JH: [Laughs] But it’s a continuation of similar themes and Black womanhood?

DD: Yes, for sure. I think I’m in a place where I can understand pleasure-seeking in a new way. I felt like a lot of the earlier works are performative pleasures. The way we say we have pleasure in caring for our families and say we have pleasure in doing these domestic things. And it not being wholly a truth—it being a real, real, difficult, dark challenge. So I think diving into the darkness is where I’m finding illumination on what pleasure really is. I think those are definitely questions and areas that I’ll be digging into.

From Kitchen Installation #1 (2013), dir. Danielle Deadwyler, courtesy Johnson Lowe Gallery.

JH: In your experimental films CHOR(E)S and bustitOpen (2021), you’re channeling your Black maternal ancestors and their various forms of labor, through an Atlantan lens. Can you talk about those elements? 

DD: Regarding my Black maternal ancestry and labor elements as themes in my experimental films through an Atlantan, which should be purely read as Southern, lens . . . First, concentrating on this very personal experience of my own labor, in an effort to reckon with the difficulty of negotiating the many fronts—as a cis femme woman, mother, community collaborator, et al.—witnessing the labor of Black Southern women, mothers like my own mother and grandmother, who both had multiple children, and the myriad other womenfolk in this Southern milieu who had to contribute to my and other children’s well-being. It’s a very specific experience that calls and yearns for more clarity. 

Secondly, I’m looking specifically at the domestic space as a trouble zone of making and unmaking the self. I’m looking at art as a practice of unseating the normative traditions of how to mother and be a woman. I’m looking at rural folkways that must be shared and remembered, to rear and care for family, and doing so through an intergenerational lens, as well as a community perspective. How to prepare food, how we make home, how we adorn our lives, how we dance, how we shake and trouble the load, and how we express the erotic and ecstatic multitudes of self. These are all critical experiences witnessed in the fictive and true forms of Black women in these works. I’m just following up on my grad work that blurs the lines of the Black woman figure that gets to be pedestalized publicly. Every complex Black woman figure is due her centering, so this is a taking of the center, as well as an effort to uphold the complexity.

JH: Will you be screening any of these short films or new films at indie theaters during Atlanta Art Week in October? 

DD: Quite possibly. Donovan Johnson [co-owner/director of Johnson Lowe Gallery] has just been like a little angel that’s dived into my life. [Laughs] Hopefully I would like to think that I got good energy and attraction. And has been leading me and a lot of opportunities at present. So we’ve got some things cooking.

Danielle Deadwyler, 2023, photo by José Ibarra Rizo.

JH: You’re a Black American Southerner, a daughter of Black Atlantan institutions: Spelman, SCLC, Cascade United Methodist Church, numerous Atlanta art orgs and theaters. What does your Atlantan legacy mean to you?

DD: It’s really defined my life and how I practice art. Everything that I do on my small, more personal level of artwork is invested with a very close-knit group of people who’ve been working with me for all this time. And that Southernness is just [laughs], is needed. The discipline and the care. The commitment to do the work in the dark and in the silence. Even though you feel like people aren’t paying attention, but they will, they are. To come from these legacies—I’m just blessed. The blessing is them. 

I still talk to Brenda Davenport [Deadwyler’s mentor] to this day, who was leading me and my siblings at SCLC and who architected a certain understanding of how spaces worked. How Black women are the skeleton and the damn skin. You talk about the biggest organ and the most hidden organ. You know, my mother worked at a law office, so when we talk about learning skills of how to run things, how to make things persist, I know Black women taught me that. I know Black women were integral in all of these institutions, even down to the arts organizations that my mom dropped me into. Just for years and years of how to be an artist, how to be a human, a good human being to people, how to care for others. Folks who pulled me out of patches of confusion. It’s just Black spiritual protection and covering at every juncture of my life. 

JH: Your artistry is boundless. How do you find the equilibrium between your film and TV projects while being a filmmaker and performance artist?

DD: Working on more, like, Hollywood dynamics, it’s not fast, right? They take up a significant amount of time. So I know that it’s important for me to just go slow. Everything about my personal works, it’s about collecting, it’s about memory, it’s about dreams. It’s about a logging of a self over time, or an object over time, or a collection of objects over time. It’s just important for me to do it in that way and not feel the need to show incessantly. I just think I’m operating in a different way. It’s not an art world capacity in the way those things come out. I learn a lot from the collectives and the folks that I work with. I don’t want it to be commercial in that way. I want to have a deeply, deeply personal experience in how things turn out. Some stuff is just for, just get it out, you know? Work it through the body, and working through the spiritual making and remaking. Because all work, just like Miranda in Station 11: “Everything ain’t meant to be sold; everything is meant to be shared.” It makes me that much more critical of who gets to be legible of what I make and what I process and what I choose to share. 

JH: Can you discuss any new projects? In your upcoming film Parallel, you play a grieving mother facing another version of herself in a parallel universe.

DD: [Laughs] I don’t know yet. I don’t know when things are coming out, but I know I’m living in this fantasy space of work that I think is really critical in navigating a world so full of drudgery. [Laughs] I think the characters and the women that I’ve been exploring are just trying to get to the multiplicity of selves, which is indicative of the lenticularities that I’ve lived. There is something beautiful to behold in navigating darkness and what can come of it. Because that was the experience of the lenticularities across four years. It was allowing the time and space for these selves to be revealed in an African diasporic, Black Atlantic exploration. Literarily, sociologically, anthropologically, culturally—like that digging is how these selves begin to rupture out of the earth and out of the darknesses. And I think cinematically, that’s what’s happening too. The kind of projects that are coming to me and that are resonating with me are women of all the, you know—messy. 

JH: Lastly, what are things that have brought you joy as of late?

DD: Babies.

JH: Babies?

DD: Babies. I don’t have no more babies [laughs], but I have beautiful extensions in my girlfriends, my homies, you know, pandemic-era babies. [Laughs]

JH: Babies popped up everywhere. Everybody had one. 

DD: Except for me! [Laughs]

JH: I don’t even have one.

DD: How joyful it is to find mothering, as a community role, you know? People love to play the auntie dynamic. Didn’t nobody wanna be called auntie! [Laughs] But, like, that’s OK. It doesn’t matter about the title. It matters in what you’re doing, the application of who you are, the practice of how you are in the community. So I’ve just really loved watching these children grow, in the midst of this madness. And watch my friends grow, in their mothering and in their fathering and their parenting in general. It’s just opening me up to other ways to be and to support them to be full, right? Seeing kids have lives and understanding that I didn’t necessarily have. Knowing full well that I had so much support in a lot of ways and I’m an extension of what my mother didn’t have, or what my grandmother didn’t have and the lineage before her did not have.