Justice Work

dream hampton has a short biography — if you ask her.

“Filmmaker. Writer. And activist from Detroit,” she says, “and in that order.”

Then, she pauses for a bit before continuing, perhaps thinking of the attachments she often gets from folks who follow her on social media, or have any awareness of her personal life, or her past as a journalist who has penned some of the most compelling pieces for some of your favorite magazines.

“It doesn't mention that I'm friends with any rappers. It doesn’t say anything about the words ‘hip’ or ‘hop.’ I can’t help what people project onto me. At this point, we've had something like Twitter for a decade and you can see if you followed me that I barely talk about hip-hop, right? For two decades I haven't talked about hip-hop. And I haven't talked about it because it doesn't interest me. I've never heard a Meek Mill album,” hampton says earnestly. “I don't know the difference between Little Yachty or whomever. It's like Tony Watson said, other people's idea about you isn't your business. What they think about you isn't your business. So, my business is about just doing what I can with this little time that we have on this big planet, and it looks like a lot of different things.”

And man, did we get a glimpse of it in 2019.

There perhaps was no bigger moment in unscripted television than the Emmy-nominated, multipart Lifetime docu-series, Surviving R. Kelly, which explored accusations of criminal activities with underage girls of one of the biggest R&B singers of all time. In the aftermath of the series, Kelly is in jail awaiting trial. hampton was an executive producer on the project.

She quickly chased that with Finding Justice, a six-part docuseries that aired on BET last spring that took a deep dive into the mass criminalization of Black America. hampton also executive produced the HBO film It's a Hard Truth Ain't It?, where she went inside Indiana's Pendleton prison and worked with 13 incarcerated men on the inner workings of the criminal justice system.

“I'm inspired by people who are imagining a world without prisons,” says hampton. “We can't fathom the changes that are coming in this century.”

And her work is helping to create those changes.

The social justice issues that resonate most with hampton are gender and racial justice — much of which show up in the work we’ve seen her produce, write and direct.

“The three projects that I did [last] year on some level all dealt with this question of what is justice,” she says. “In Time magazine I wrote an essay asking the same question, ‘What does justice actually look like for someone like R. Kelly?’ Because I think that we are thinking about that question collectively out loud. Some of it looks like conversations about cancel culture, and some of it looks like more iterative conversations about abolition.”

Whew. It’s a lot of tough work. Tough actually is an understatement. But someone has to do it. And why not dream hampton?

She won’t talk about forthcoming projects — she kept the R. Kelly project underwraps for a long time. Almost no one knew she was working on that one. But hampton teases that she has something heading to Netflix soon about women in hip-hop.

“Michelle Obama once said something that really resonated with me. She said you can have it all but not at once. I went to film school in the early ‘90s. That's why I ended up in New York and had this career as a writer for a decade and a half,” hampton says. “But I think that what has surprised me most is that the degree to which over time I've been able to integrate what I used to think of as my separate selves, my activist self, my writer self and my filmmaker self. That has been a surprise. I used to think that I needed to focus on one and deny the others, and it's actually turned out in the long run to be all these separate selves coming together into one career.”

— Louise Williams

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