If you were dream hampton, the award-winning filmmaker who happens to call Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter a friend, naturally you would want make a movie with him. And if you want to raise awareness about a massive social justice issue that deeply affects your community in gorgeously simple and human terms, you make “A History of The War on Drugs, from Prohibition to Gold Rush.”
The animated short, which is narrated by Carter with drawings by the artist Molly Crabapple (who credits Spike Jonze as a collaborator), premiered on The New York Times website today to much viral fanfare. Crabapple’s hand appears in frame holding a watercolor brush, the frame-rate sped up to create the illusion that whipping up her gorgeous illustrations is the easiest thing in the world. Carter’s narration tells the history of U.S. drug laws that have targeted black and brown folks, beginning with Nixon and Reagan, peppered with his own brief involvement in the drug game. The film concludes with the crushing irony that with marijuana legalization, white men are now profiting from doing what sent millions of black children to jail.
In a script he wrote, Carter breaks down this history — chronicled in great detail by Michelle Alexander in her seminal book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in The Age of Colorblindness” — in simple and digestible bites. By adding in his own experience, the story becomes personal and immediate, flowing naturally. He speaks of Reaganomics and mandatory minimums in a smooth and deliberate cadence, hovering in a liminal space between voiceover and slam poetry. Occasionally, the rapper throws in a conversational aside to the viewer, such as “You paying attention?” or “Yeah, all of them,” as if to say: “You getting all of this?”
hampton, who co-produced the short along with Jim Batt and Kim Boekbinder, has known Carter since 1996, and co-authored his 2010 autobiography “Decoded.” She also co-founded a social impact agency called Revolve Impact, which works with celebrities and artists to do deeper dives into social justice issues. “This issue of economic equity has really been under my skin,” hampton told IndieWire by phone this morning. “The issue of who’s finally going to profit if the war on drugs ends.” Carter was aware of hampton’s work with Revolve, and reached out to the filmmaker.
“Jay said: ‘I wanna make mass incarceration my issue,'” hampton said. She told him to think of mass incarceration as a pie, and suggested the war on drugs was a perfect way to involve him. “He had twenty years of a catalogue that talks about how this lack of economic choices drives people to drug dealing… The paranoia, and the sleeplessness, and all of the things that always made his music interesting to me.”
Carter chose to narrate because he did not want his celebrity status to distract from the issues at its center. “Jay has a really principled way of managing his celebrity,” said hampton. “He is not interested in putting himself forward.”
Meanwhile, Carter is not the only famous rapper hampton knows with a personal stake in the war on drugs: “Method Man once told me: ‘I was never a kingpin, but I made thirty dollars on every hundred, and that was a living wage for me.'”
In all the excitement over marijuana legalization, most people were eager to forget all the lives ruined by absurdly strict marijuana laws. “As we see the aboveground marijuana industry become a multi-billion dollar agency, we’re gonna see these same people who were sacrificed and who sacrificed be locked out of that business,” said hampton. “That wasn’t being said, and Jay seemed like the perfect person to say it.”
An accomplished filmmaker, hampton’s feature-length documentary “Treasure,” about the murder of a black transgender girl in Detroit, played the Los Angeles Film Festival last year. Her short film, “I Am Ali,” played Sundance in 2002, and won best short at the Newport Film Festival. She is currently working on a narrative feature about intimacy between two teenagers in Detroit (her hometown features in much of her work). “It’s not quite on message, but I care about black people across the board. I care about ways in which we’re criminalized and dehumanized.”
Though hampton would love to devote all of her time to making movies, that does not always pay the bills. “So I find myself doing the work,” the filmmaker said. “Sometimes I’m in a position where I have access to some folks, and I’m kind of the only one that can. And so then you kind of have to, you know?”