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Insecure’s Kendrick Sampson Knows ‘There Is No Revolution Without Art’

Photo: Michael Tran/WireImage/Getty Images

When Insecure wrapped up its fourth season last Sunday, we found ourselves in a dramatically different world than when the season began. People are taking to the streets in historic numbers to protest racism and police brutality, and the world is slowly, finally beginning to listen. This moment has created a ripple effect in entertainment, where we’re seeing the industry begin to commit to a shift in consciousness about the way Black people are perceived on both the large and small screen.

As a guest star on Insecure and co-lead of the new film Miss Juneteenth, which is available on demand beginning on the titular holiday, actor Kendrick Sampson is already well aware of the power of Black stories. And when he isn’t in front of the camera, he’s out in the world fighting for Black lives as a leader of the organization BLD PWR. Vulture recently discussed these changing times with Sampson, who recently returned to Insecure with a revelation about his character, Nathan.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

You’ve been at the Black Lives Matter protests in L.A. and were recently attacked by the police. Would you feel comfortable talking a little about that?

I have a nonprofit initiative called BLD PWR, and we’ve been co-organizing protests all over the city with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. I’ve been involved with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles for about five years. We created BLD PWR to organize Hollywood around social-justice issues, and we wanted folks to know what defunding the police meant.

We wanted to actually get out into the streets because Black people have been brutalized by police for wearing masks, for not wearing masks, for displaying their grief and trauma in public and anything else, while white people were being handed out masks and treated completely differently. And then we saw too many police killings, of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Sean Reid and so many others. Then there were the deaths of Black trans women like Nina Pop. And Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down by white supremacists. Tony McDade in Tallahassee. We just had to get out and show our numbers in the streets and show just how much unrest there is and how fed up people are with the countless murders — 609 folks in Los Angeles alone.

We wanted to make sure we showed that it was the entire system. Mayor Garcetti was proposing 200 million additional dollars for the LAPD when L.A. city already spends 54 percent of its budget on LAPD. This is during COVID-19, when our communities really need relief. And Black folks are disproportionately affected by both the health and economic crisis as well as police brutality. We don’t need to invest any more money into oppression. Crime has been on a steady decline for years as police budgets keep going up all over the country. We want to let people know what solutions are available for them. We can protest [L.A. County District Attorney] Jackie Lacey because she refuses to prosecute killer cops. We can expose the system for what it really is and call for defunding of the police.

We had several demonstrations. Most of them were beautiful, healing, and a place to show our rage, voice our demands, and highlight who is a part of the problem. The one that started at Pan Pacific Park where we marched to Third and Fairfax was the first one where police became extremely aggressive. We’ve been doing marches for years. They only get aggressive when police are trying to make a point. They tried to scare us back into our houses because of what was happening all over the country. They brutalized us for hours. They shot us with rubber bullets, beat us with batons and used tear gas. My buddy Deon had two fractured bones in his skull. My assistant had his shin split open so you could see the bone. I got shot seven times with rubber bullets, and each time they take off a few layers of skin. I was jumped by cops with batons, I was bruised all over. This happened to so many of us. We were brutalized in the streets by cops for calling for an end to police brutality. That exposed the system for what it really is.

We had 100,000 folks the following Sunday. They thought being beaten would scare us back into our houses, but on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday, we were back in the streets again. We’ve done it many times since then, and the numbers keep growing because people are realizing it’s the systems that are violent. We’re going to experience that violence in our homes or in the streets. We might as well come out and buck the system. We might as well show what we really want and what we’re about. You cannot scare us back into our homes. And that’s what we’re seeing all over the United States. And we’re seeing institutions respond and begin to consider divesting from the police. We’re seeing Minneapolis commit to dismantling their police department. We’re seeing school districts canceling their contracts with police. So it’s working. The movement is actually working. It’s a historic moment in response to a historic oppression.

We just finished making a presentation to the L.A. City Council about reimagining what public safety looks like, which includes defunding the police. Right before this interview. It was passionate, succinct, and beautiful. Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles led the presentation, and I was privileged to be one of the five people to present and represent BLD PWR. It was a historic moment. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles has been railing against the City Council, the mayor, and Jackie Lacey for five years and had never been called in to give a special presentation before. So I’m hoping we see some headlines soon and make waves.

When was the first time that you became aware of police brutality?

It’s hard to pinpoint when, but I do remember specific examples of buddies of mine being beaten by police officers and me jumping in. I’ve been pulled out of my car at gunpoint, accused of stealing my mom’s car. I had a gun pointed in at my head at 16, and I looked like a 12-year-old at the time. I’ve always looked smaller and younger than I was, so I don’t know what they thought was threatening about me. But they pulled my cousin and I out of the car regardless, accused me of stealing and sexually harassed my cousin. They said we matched the description, which I seriously doubt. Then they left.

I went on to encounter police violence again during 2015 and 2016 in the wake of Ferguson. And then again at Standing Rock with tear gas and rubber bullets. There was surveillance, drones, bugs in rooms. Police were shutting down people’s phones, their livestreams, and recording devices … It’s a very violent system that was founded on slave-catching and continues to operate in that capacity. And that’s what we’re fighting for: Making sure we defund that system and put those funds in new systems that were actually founded on wellness and care and accountability in our communities.

This system that we have now was founded to protect white elite folks who stole land from indigenous folks, trafficked Black people, and looted their land. Black people were brought here to work the land and not partake in any of the fruits of their labor. This capitalist system was created to protect white folks from the people they were committing crimes against and to prevent retaliation and rebellion. We are seeing the culmination of that oppression right now. People are fed up. Once we’re out of this crisis, we don’t want the world to look anything like what we had before. We are committed to building something better.

What is like working in entertainment at a tumultuous time like this? Where does entertainment fit into this?

One of my favorite sayings is: “There’s no revolution without art.” It’s a popular saying in movement spaces, and it’s 100 percent true. Many of the organizers and radical abolitionists are artists. We have a duty as people who are paid to be imaginative to utilize that imagination and creativity to make a better world. Too often in Hollywood, it’s been used for the opposite, creating anti-Black content that people use to justify the death of Black people. As an industry, it is our duty to counter that oppression and be part of the solution.

Right now, I’m really trying to organize Hollywood, be an activist, and speak out. Not a whole lot of actors are working right now, if any. I’ve been doing press and talking about what’s happening in the streets. It feels good to be part of something like Insecure, which shows real things but also makes people laugh and brings Black people a little bit of joy during this time. I think that’s important. And Miss Juneteenth has a narrative that is elevating the humanization of Black folks. That may not be the intention, but the film shows Black people just being human, and we don’t get to see that enough. I’m proud to be a part of those projects. Art thrives in oppressive times because we need it.

I caught Miss Juneteenth at Sundance, and it was one of the best movies there. I’m from Georgia, so I love southern Black movies. Seeing us represented sympathetically and realistically is so important.

I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m from Houston, so I love southern Black movies too.

What I love is the way that it talks about the promise of “getting out” of your situation when you’re working-class and the way that our white patriarchal capitalist society keeps pushing up against that, creating this huge pressure for us to be exceptional.

I love the way you put that. I hope that makes it to the final draft. [Laughs.] That’s exactly what it is. The system is built up to work against us. The film shows how the protagonist Turquoise navigates through that. Nicole [Beharie] plays Turquoise so brilliantly. And it’s all so complicated. The villain in the story is white supremacy and capitalism, but we don’t necessarily need to highlight it in the film to know that.

You know, I love how we call each other king and queen, but some of us weren’t. Some of us were the proletariat. We were farmers, workers, and artists. A lot of our ancestors were regular folk, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s so much pride to be had in that. My mother was an artist, she went to school for counseling, and then she worked in business. My dad was a soldier in Vietnam and then came home and worked as a photographer. And then he worked for the Department of Transportation. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of who and where I came from.

I also really enjoyed this season of Insecure. One interesting thing about your character, Nathan, is that he’s such a calm and quiet presence. Finding out he’s bipolar this season was a genuine surprise, because television has a tendency to portray characters with mental illness in such a volatile, melodramatic way. Bipolar characters especially tend to be written as erratic and aggressive. Nathan is definitely a different image of a bipolar man.

There’s a full spectrum of bipolar disorder. My brother had to navigate that. For me, I have very debilitating anxiety. In media, we like to sensationalize what mental health looks like. But sometimes it’s just a regular mental-health struggle. I think Hollywood has done a vast disservice to people with mental-health issues by constantly portraying them as violent. The truth is that violence is cultural in America. This is a country founded on violence.

I like that Nathan’s disorder wasn’t demonized or made violent. The percentage of people with mental-health disorders who act out violently is so much smaller than television would have you believe. It’s rare to see a Black person’s mental health humanized onscreen.

Kendrick Sampson Knows ‘There Is No Revolution Without Art’