Issue 004 Summer 2022 Interviews

On Flooded Basements

An Interview with dream hampton

By Beandrea July

Freshwater (2021), dir. dream hampton. Film still by Erik Howard. All images courtesy of dream hampton.


dream hampton won’t be put in a box, nor will she put herself in one. When we speak over Zoom—she from Detroit and I from Los Angeles—I ask how she likes to describe herself when meeting new folks.

“A Virgo from Detroit?” she quips.


Then she offers her take on the differences between Gen Xers like herself and (old) millennials like me: “I think we are over-describing ourselves. The older I get, the less important it becomes to be understood.”

Hampton’s wisdom is well earned. She is a multihyphenate’s multihyphenate: a writer who got her start in The Source, chronicling some of the hitmakers of 1990s hip hop while also studying film at NYU and community organizing, among many other things.

Her work as an organizer often led to opportunities to make films that spotlighted the work of other organizers. The most well-known of these is Surviving R. Kelly, the Peabody award–winning television series that built upon the work of the #MuteRKelly campaign created by two Black women in Chicago (Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye) and debuted on Lifetime in 2019. Hampton’s feature-length documentary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It—co-directed with a group of incarcerated men—landed on HBO that same year, along with her BET series Finding Justice.

Fast-forward to 2022: hampton is releasing two new short films, both with nonlinear narratives that put Black girls at the center. In March, for the Los Angeles Opera’s digital shorts series, she directed a film set to a composition from Tamar-kali called We Hold These Truths. It features a pair of Black girls existing in a serene, natural world of their own conjuring.

And in April, hampton released Freshwater as an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. It was made with her own money and a small crew of close collaborators, as she wanted to heal from the trauma of making some of her past projects. She also wanted to bring attention to the catastrophic increase in flooding in Detroit caused by climate change.

Both of these films, in their gentle ethereality, feel like something we haven’t seen before from hampton. These intimate works are a departure from her previous films, which often deliver bold, necessary calls to political and social action (for example, Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story [2015], We Demand Justice for Renisha McBride [2013], and Black August [2010]). In Freshwater, hampton narrates stories about her family in Detroit. She makes poignant use of black-and-white family photos submerged in the water of flooded basements. And although she may not feel the need to “over-describe” herself, after a few decades of telling stories in print and on film, hampton is allowing us to see where it all began.


Freshwater (2021), dir. dream hampton. Film still by Erik Howard.

Beandrea July: So, let’s talk about Freshwater. Describe the film for us and tell us about the genesis.

dream hampton: For sure. This is a short documentary, a nonlinear doc about flooded basements, memory, and my disappearing Black city. And the genesis was what’s been happening to Detroit on multiple levels. There were things happening in my city. Some of them are floods in my old neighborhood. I remember being a child—I think I was in the first or second grade when they came. The city just came and cut down all the trees on the block. And that de-greening of our cities is as much a part of the reason why we’re dealing with some of these problems now.

I was thinking about basements of places, where we store memory. Literally it’s the place in the house where we put things. And then last year the flooding happened in every season—every season except for winter. So, it’s no longer an existential dread. It’s right here. And the other thing that is right here, and has been for at least a decade, is this demo shifting. It’s a resetting. I mean, I was born in the middle of a great shift. I’m not going to call it a great migration, but it was a great demographic shift in that the interactions of the late ’60s happened and white folks moved to the suburbs. It was a pretty complete exodus.

Now we’re dealing with basically your generation in terms of the white kids who were raised on Wu-Tang and don’t have a fear of Black folks. They are just coming back into the cities. All of a sudden Detroit became this place where white folks were moving to, and that is such a jolt for a city like Detroit, a Black city. It had been a complicated city, but it was our own . . . and now it’s disappearing. And so both things are happening at once. There’s the threat of neighborhoods literally disappearing, going underwater.

BJ: Freshwater, it’s so saturated, but at the same time it felt very much like a meditation listening to your voice as the narrator. I’ve never heard you put yourself at the center of something you’re making before. Is this the first time you’ve done that?

dh: Wow. Yeah, you’re right. I Am Ali, which is a little small film I made, was a deeply personal film, but this is really—it’s about my basement, my parents’ basement. An [essay] I wrote called “Things I Lost in the Fire” and this piece are probably the most personal pieces I’ve written.1 I lived in New York for decades, and around 2007 I moved back home. It took me this long to be able to really process the grieving. This is a meditation. It’s actually a decade-long meditation.


Freshwater (2021), dir. dream hampton. Film still by Erik Howard.

BJ: You said that you made Freshwater for a healing purpose. Could you talk about that?

dh: For sure. [My] producer ill Weaver—they are a really good friend of mine and helped me to name things as trauma, because they’re a millennial and I’m not. What I went through making Surviving R. Kelly, I just be like, Woo, that wore me out. I have euphemisms, and ill will be like, “Yeah, no—that’s actually called trauma. That’s called secondary trauma.” And they encourage me to do the somatics and the bodywork. I didn’t realize how clenched my body was, not just the year that we made it, but then the year when it became consequential, once it came out in the world. It was at once didactic and traumatic, and not just in the subject matter but the making of it. Interacting with folks who have been abused in that way, it was hard on every level.

Also, I hadn’t worked with a studio before. Having Bunim/Murray [Productions] and Lifetime [on board], all of that was also traumatic. And so I just wanted to do something small that reminded me that I’m an artist, and it was healing for me . . . to have this tiny little micro-crew working on a film that I’m paying for out of pocket, filming with my own equipment, cutting in my home—cutting in my basement, in fact. And so that was all a part of the healing, the process as much as what I was taking on inside of the film.

BJ: I listened to your conversation with Darnell Moore on the On Being podcast. You talked with him about learning about how to work with the little girl inside of dream. And when I was watching Freshwater, I noticed that there were a couple of little Black girls in this film. Speaking of healing, and maybe I’m projecting here, but it felt like there was some kind of connection.

dh: No, you’re making connections that I haven’t even made. . . . The first thing I ever wrote was about nineteen-year-old Dee Barnes getting beat up by Dr. Dre, so Black girls have always been centered in my work. And it just all worked and flowed. There was a lot of flowing.

BJ: Were there specific references that influenced Freshwater that you can articulate?

dh: When I showed a good friend, Karen Wong from the New Museum, she felt like my underwater photographs were direct allusions to something [the artist] John Akomfrah had done. And maybe there’s a cellular memory of his work, but I wasn’t thinking of that when I did it.

I really love the way that Terrence Malick will stay on a blade of grass for too long. In this world that can be so noisy and chatty, I love to just have a lot of space in between the noise. Days of Heaven (1978) is just one of those films that changed everything for me, even the voiceover, because I [can’t] think of a voiceover that I have liked as much as [that film’s].

In terms of the soundtrack, Sterling Toles is an artist in Detroit who had already made this piece of music that included all these sounds of water, and it was just perfect. It helped me with the rhythm when I was in post, around the pacing of it.


Freshwater (2021), dir. dream hampton. Film still by Erik Howard.

BJ: Did you have the intention at the beginning for Freshwater to be seen in a museum and for people to interact with it that way?

dh: Some of what is exciting in this moment is this Black curatorial practice—that people like Thelma Golden helped to nurture over a couple of decades—that has arrived and is the most interesting thing happening in the Black arts scene right now.

For a long time, the most interesting thing happening in Black arts was music. We used to socialize around clubs and album release parties, and y’all socialize around museum openings and gallery openings in the visual arts world. So yeah, there are all these curators that I really respect—Rujeko Hockley, Jova Lynne, Franklin Sirmans, Rashida Bumbray—who I hope to have first eyes on it.

BJ: You used to write film reviews when you were in elementary school just for yourself. What were the movies that you reviewed in your private journal?

dh: We had a writer [Susan Stark] for the Detroit Free Press. She was our local Pauline Kael. And when I came across a scrapbook from a basement that had been flooded in my old home, there was this soggy little album that I was reviewing—her review of Moonstruck (1987). I was clipping out movie reviews and then rewriting them, feeling like certain things were missed. I grew up in an alcoholic household, and to avoid going home, I used to spend a lot of time at the [Detroit Institute of Arts] Museum in ninth grade. We had the DFT, which is the Detroit Film Theater. And there was who-knows-what little angel of a curator there, but they were just giving Detroit folks Jules and Jim (1962) and The Bicycle Thief (1948) and all of these films that I would later see for $40,000 a year at NYU as a part of my cinema studies program but that I had watched as a ninth grader.

BJ: I’ve read that you make a distinction between the years where you really focused on organizing and didn’t make art at all and years where you made art and didn’t really focus on organizing. I’m curious about that, because so much of your work has to do with really important issues.

dh: That’s why right now I’m working on getting back to my scripted things. Because I guess the overlap then becomes the reason. . . . There are people who might think, Oh, dream—she makes documentaries. And I don’t think of myself that way.

BJ: You don’t?

dh: Unh-uh. I made those documentaries because those issues matter to me. There was organizing happening within the trans community about Treasure when she was murdered.2 There was incredible reporting about Treasure’s case, and there was all this work already being done. So when [Natasha] T. Miller came and was like, “Let’s do a film about her.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s.” That is something I can contribute, because this story gutted me. This girl, she was in community with my daughter.


Freshwater (2021), dir. dream hampton. Film still by Erik Howard.

BJ: So you’ve just done what you felt passionate about?

dh: Yeah, and the passion has been fueled by the activism, but I am at a point in my life where I’m trying to unplug. The problem with being Black in America and trying to mount a resistance to all of the things is that—I don’t want to sound as pessimistic as my Twitter feed sounds—but not much changes. And so it’s actually gut-wrenching and heartbreaking.

I used to be in an organization called the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. It was our organization that started counting the number of people who were being killed extrajudicially. And then, of course, the work that this new generation of organizers started doing—all that they really got out of that was a count. After Oscar Grant, after Trayvon, after Mike Brown, the only material thing that came is that the federal government now counts the 1,100+ victims that the police kill every year. But that number hasn’t changed the consequences for those folks. So that work that I was doing—I’m not going to say it’s not mine to do anymore, but I want to do some other things before I die too.

BJ: You mentioned you’re working on scripted projects. I’m not going to ask you to be specific, but I’m curious about that, because I Am Ali (2002) came out back in the early aughts. That was a scripted work that you wrote and directed, and you haven’t done any scripted work since then. What’s behind you coming back around to it now?

dh: The other way to answer that question is, why didn’t I for that long? My daughter was maybe six when I did I Am Ali, and so then I had to raise her [laughs].3 Really what you’re doing when you’re scripting something is world building. And you’re inviting all of these people to play in this world that you’ve just built, whereas documentary filmmaking is about entering worlds that already exist and trying to get permission to share and tell those stories. And so it’s a different level of commitment, quite frankly. Documentary filmmakers are incredibly important. The world has changed around documentary filmmaking since I took my one class at NYU. It’s just a time and a season. I’m just ready. I have a couple of stories that I want to tell, and one of them is a story I’ve been trying to tell since 1994. I have another documentary that I’m working on that’s important to me. And I have another, a scripted series that I’m working on. So, we’ll see.

BJ: I love how you’re talking about it: “This is the season I’m in in my life. This is what I’ve done in the past, and this is what I want to do now.” How are you defining success for yourself going forward?

dh: I’m really trying not to think like that. I’m a Virgo, but I’m not a list maker. I don’t do this thing where I’m taking inventory. I mean, yes, when I was twelve, did I write an Oscar acceptance speech? Sure, but that’s everyone’s story. I remember in January I logged on to Instagram and there were all these [ads for] apps about [how] you can learn how to do the splits if you do the stretch app for 30 days. And I was like, “I want to do the splits! I’ve never been able to do the splits! [laughs]”


Footnotes:

1. dream hampton, “Things I Lost in the Fire,” in A Detroit Anthology, ed. Anna Clark (Cleveland: Rust Belt Chic Press, 2014).

2.Treasure: from Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story (2015) is about the life, and death, of a trans woman named Treasure in Detroit. The short won best documentary at the 2015 BlackStar Film Festival.

3. A scripted short that played at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, starring Aunjanue Ellis and Ishmael Butler, with cinematography by Arthur Jafa.