Dream Hampton Talks Abuser Accountability, Documentaries, and Activism

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BY: DEZIMEY KUM

Dream Hampton, an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and social-activist from Detroit, spoke at American University on October 2. The event was a collaboration by Kennedy Political Union (KPU) and Women’s Initiative (WI), and was moderated by Dr. Nikki Lane, American University’s Professor in Race, Gender, and Culture Studies. 

Throughout her career, Hampton said she made it her mission to document stories no one else wants to touch. She focuses many of her films on current events and issues primarily within the black community. For decades, Hampton documented rap culture and its intersections (Jay Z on 2010's New York Times bestseller, Decoded), pivoting from a career in music journalism to directing documentaries such as “Treasure” (2015) the HBO feature documentary, “It's A Hard Truth Ain't It” (2019), and the BET docu-series “Finding Justice" (2019). Hampton

Since the 90’s, she has shined a light on abuser accountability in the music industry. In cases such as Dr. Dre’s assault on journalist Dee Barnes, Hampton was one of the few writers to challenge rappers on misogyny and physical violence against women. In her earlier years of her hip-hop journalism career, Hampton reviewed music through an intellectual framework, which focused on patriarchy and capitalism. 

Her most recent and influential work was Lifetime’s, “Surviving R. Kelly” (2019): a six-part docuseries focusing on Kelly's alleged victims and their family members. “Surviving R. Kelly” broke ratings records and made waves in the entertainment industry and Black community. Before filming “Surviving R. Kelly”, Hampton reached out to many artists who previously worked with Kelly; all declined to talk except for John Legend. During the talk, Hampton noted that she hoped the absence of celebrities was not the big takeaway from the series. 

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Before Hampton’s talk,The Blackprint had the chance to speak with the filmmaker on her career and accomplishments.


The Blackprint (The BP): What made you want to enter the film industry?

Dream Hampton (DH): “It’s all I ever wanted to do. I know that people thought that I was a writer, and I know how to write, but I've never taken a writing class. When I was 12, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to film school at NYU; when I was in New York, Hip-Hop was happening. The people in my neighborhood, ended up being MCs. So, I wrote about it, mostly about misogyny, and gender violence, and some political stuff. I would write about Winnie Mandela, Dee Barnes being attacked, things like that; but I never wanted to be a writer.”

The BP: On making Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly”, the allegations that come up in the documentary focus on: physical abuse, sexual abuse, starvation, and  isolation. What was the hardest part for you to film?

DH: “Just knowing that there were two girls that were still with him. One of the girls was dramatically rescued on camera, when we flew her mother in to do an interview. To know that it was an ongoing story there was something at stake and urgent. Quite frankly, it’s been really sad to see the amount of control he still has on those two girls; that there kind of making videos saying: “you don’t need to worry about me, I'm fine.” Not to diss girls your age, they will look back at their 20-year old selves, and they’ll think differently about the choices they are making right now.”

The BP: When “Surviving R. Kelly” reached Black Twitter, the social platform’s most sprawling and influential cultural institution, just about everyone weighed in. What was the outcome after producing the documentary?

DH: “It’s not just Black Twitter. It’s also the “Me Too” movement. I was working at 5 Magazine and writing about music, when R. Kelly’s rape tape of him abusing a 14-year old went viral on the streets, and there was no place to talk about it in the way we have now. When young people are like, “How did this go on for so long?”, there wasn’t the cohesion of this public space. There wasn’t this way of holding people accountable, and of organization across the country. Black Twitter has had a huge influence.”

The voices of black assault survivors have often been silenced by a society where race and socioeconomic status determines whose pain is prioritized. Research by the National Organization for Women shows that, “for every 15 black women who are raped, only one reports her assault.”

Can retraumatization be avoided in a justice system that continues to fail these women, and when their own community sided with their abuser for many years?  For a better understanding of sexual violence against black women, you must center the voices of survivors—which Hampton does in “Surviving R. Kelly.”