I had the opportunity to sit down with Anika Noni Rose at Sundance to discuss her new film Assassination Nation, how women are often at the forefront of the revolution, why we need to stop projecting sexuality on the innocent, and this incredible new season of The Quad!
Kay-B: Hi, I am Kay-B, with Black Girl Nerds, great to see you again.
Anika Noni Rose: Hi, lovely to see you again.
Kay-B: Okay so I saw Assassination Nation, I went to the midnight screening and woo!
Anika : It’s intense, right?
Kay-B: That’s a really great word. In the beginning, they put up the trigger warning words, and by the end, I was like, wow, we really touched on every single one of those words.
Kay-B: So, there are a lot of themes around feminism spread throughout, and the heroines are four teenage girls who really come together in the end. Your character Nance, in the downfall when the email hacks begin, Nance rises to the occasion, not only to save her daughter, but also to help fight against everything that happens. What’s interesting is that the majority of people in opposition are men.
Anika: Yes, the men are the strongest force.
Kay-B: They are the strongest forces, yet they are hiding behind these masks. But if you are so rooted in hate, then why don’t you just show your true selves?
Anika: Well we know why they aren’t revealing themselves. People rooted in hate have been hiding their faces since the beginning of time, in spite of feeling very, very right. There is a lot of truth in this film, although it is a fantasy. I don’t think it’s very far from the reality we live in. It is based on a lot of things going on now. Look at the big hack at Sony. The interesting thing about that, the only person who went down was that woman.
Kay-B: Right, but what about everyone else?
Anika: Look at our election. So there’s a lot of truth and a lot of foreshadowing if we don’t get ourselves together. I feel like, in the history of humanity, it often takes women.
Kay-B: That’s right, it often takes women to come to the forefront.
Anika: It often takes women in a different way, sometimes actually physically. When you think about the first woman Samurai in Japan. When you think about the lore of the Amazon. We are there and we have been a changing force in history for a long, long time. Right now, we see that we are rising again, and apparently this year’s Women’s March was a lot angrier than last year, which is a good thing. We need that anger to push us forward into a new space, and to push society into a new space, it often falls on us.
Kay-B: Anger drives and fuels change. I don’t think men really understand or hear us sometimes…until we are angry, until we’re pushed to a certain point.
Anika: Right, and then it’s like “Why are you so mad?” “Why are you so angry?” Anger is a very interesting feeling, because anger is often fear. You can either channel that and make it useful or you can sit there and let it eat you. Very often, we are not heard until we start to speak in the same tones they use on a daily basis. Sometimes not, sometimes we are able to slide in and use a soft hand. Either way, it shouldn’t matter how we get our message across, we should always be heard. It doesn’t matter if it’s via a soft hand or a yelling voice. We just aren’t heard, and this film really taps into the need for all of us to listen to each other and see each other. To realize that when you hit “enter” on your computer, you put something out in the world. That “enter” often can be a trigger. Not just a trigger warning, but an actual physical trigger. You can be the person that puts the nail in somebody’s coffin because you didn’t think, because you didn’t have empathy before you hit “enter.” That is a very real thing.
Kay-B: You’re right that the film touches a lot on that. What I like about your character Nance is not only that she’s a carefree sexual Black woman, which we don’t see enough of. We have seen it recently with Being Mary Jane and She’s Gotta Have It, but I appreciate how carefree your character is. I also appreciate that when the hack happens, Nance owns up to her mistakes and immediately takes responsibility for her actions.
Anika: She’s very honest. She’s not a happy person, but she is caring and empathetic. She knows who she is and she’s very clear about that. I felt like the character was a gift. The script was a little different from what we see as the end product, but the script was magnificent. I had no idea that Nance was who they would be calling me for. There were no qualifiers for these characters. Just women and men with age brackets. So, I just read people. I just knew they called me in to wife myself to death to somebody (laughs). Nance is the exact opposite and I love that. The person that I thought when I read Bex’s (Hari Nef) character, I immediately thought that character was Black, because of how it went down in the end. I thank Sam Levinson with everything in me for casting people he thought [were] right for the roles. My character was written for someone a lot older than I can really play convincingly, so he changed it. Sam’s a visionary and he is an open being. What he did by not putting boxes around these characters, was create an exceptionally diverse landscape. We are talking about a film that has three black characters, a lot of women, and a transgendered character for whom that is not their entire being. I loved the way the character (Bex) was cultivated as a beautiful, thorough person, with feelings and smarts, without being a source of sympathy.
Kay-B: Yes, Bex out of everyone knows her self-worth through and through, without a shadow of a doubt. When the first hack happens and everyone else is empathetic, Bex speaks her truth and she doesn’t necessarily agree with Lily’s sentiments.
Anika: I loved that! She was saying: “Why should I care about him? He doesn’t care about me or the lives of my brothers and sisters.” So, when I say this, I say Bex is someone you’re allowed to have sympathy for, but she isn’t a victim. She is strong, and you are allowed to see her and feel her. The way this was written was so authentic, and I think we would benefit from more writing and casting like this.
Kay-B: The film was very diverse, but this is how real life is.
Anika: This was a town that you could know. It is a very honest portrayal of teens, small towns, and sexuality. I don’t think people want to know how sexual teens are. We are human beings, we are animals in that way. Teenagers have a lot of hormones, so there is no way they aren’t sexual beings. I thought the cinematography was phenomenal.
Kay-B: Even though it was gory, you needed it. It was done well. Everyone was cheering in the theater because those four girls were not playing games!
Anika: Okay! Even with the sexuality, which was very clear and in your face, yet you didn’t see a lot of nudity. There wasn’t that gratuitous young nudity. There were booty shorts, but I have seen a lot of booty shorts in real life. I have seen some on the street that I’ve been ashamed of. Like, aren’t you afraid to sit down? You might pick something up! When you ride, are you just going to put that on the seat, with nothing to cover? You might want a seat cover from the bathroom to put on your subways seat, just to make it home.
Kay-B: (Laughs) Right, all of the bacteria!
Anika: There was nothing in the movie that struck me like it would never happen. Even the things that were excessive, weren’t even unrealistic. We just lived through Charlottesville, so what is excessive?
Kay-B: You’re so right. Lily (Odessa Young) even makes a point when she is in Principal Turrell’s (Colman Domingo) office, challenging him and asking him to explain why her sketches are confiscated and why he deems them grotesque. She asks him if he doesn’t like it because it shows that women are sexual. Lily questions everything and, of course, her parents do not like that.
Anika: They are very tied up and tight, as if they have never done anything to make children.
Kay-B: Yes! I love the dynamic because, on the other hand, your character Nance allows her daughter Em (Abra), a certain level of freedom. Just to see the parallel between the two, since we really only see the parental/child dynamics with Lily and Em’s parents. I mean we do see another parent in Joel McHale’s character, but he’s terrifyingly creepy.
Anika: Yea, he creepy as f–k. But, It’s a commentary on how things are not twisted until we make them so. Let’s take babies. Babies loved to be naked and everyone loves. I love them, want to cuddle them and let them run free.
Kay-B: And that’s not sexual at all.
Anika: At all. I just want to kiss their feet and bite their toes. It is not sexual. Everybody has a picture of themselves naked somewhere as a baby because they were cute. And the parents photographed that, knowing that they would never be that way again. Their little baby walrus (laughs). At this point, you confiscate someone’s phone and they have a picture of their child in their own state of naturalness, and you want to put a social filter on that that turns it into something dirty. Are we so scared? I don’t understand that at all and it is a very dangerous thing. We put sexuality on children as well, and that too is a dangerous thing. Kids love hugs and kisses. Their instinct is to love in a natural, healthy, beautiful and much more sane way than our President [who likes] to grab things.
Anika: So, it’s a really interesting study on the lenses that we use, and how, when you flip the filter, there’s a completely different picture.
Kay-B: From what it was intended to be.
Kay-B: Well I loved your character and the whole ensemble. I didn’t know what to expect, and this was dramatically different from anything I could’ve envisioned in my mind.
Anika: Well thank you.
Kay-B: So, what is a dream role for you? This character is so unique, so ideally what would be next?
Anika: I was thinking about this recently. I definitely want to do some action stuff. It’s a way of challenging your body, as well as your character, so that’s always fantastic. I love historical dramas, but I would love to do comedy. I am tired and I miss comedy. I think people have forgotten that I have a sense of humor, let alone the ability to be humorous. So, I would very much like to do that.
Kay-B: Keep it light.
Anika: Yes, I would love to do a romantic comedy! I think that it is time for that to be back.
Kay-B: That would be great. So lastly, what can you tease about this season of The Quad?
Anika: It is going to be FIRE!! It Is a whole new semester, dealing with the fallout of last season. I am attempting to help my daughter heal while attempting to heal myself. I was witness to a trauma that I could not stop. I think, as a parent, that is a horrible, horrible feeling. As a parent, you can’t be with your kids all of the time. You still see them as the little Michelin baby on the rug, and you have a baby walrus in your mind. I am dealing with that, but not necessarily well. It’s putting a lot of stress on me—I should say, “her,” on Eva. The Georgia University system wants to merge with Georgia A&M, and we know what that means. When a PWI wants to merge with an HBCU, it usually means the HBCU ends up being swallowed. Eva is trying to make enough money and do enough deals to make sure that doesn’t happen. She recognizes now, having been there for a minute, what the culture means to the school and the students.
Kay-B: …and to the community!
Anika: So that is going on. Also, Cecile Diamond (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) didn’t die (laughs). So, there’s a lot of drama going on with the band. But Cecile loses some things that are really essential to him, and he, of course, wants revenge for that. This season, we get to see more of Carlton Pettiway (E. Roger Mitchell), who is one of Eva’s arch-nemeses. We get to see more into his personal life and who he is. The students also really come into their own this season. We see more of Cedric (Peyton Alex Smith) outside of “thug life.” So, there is a lot going on and it is really exciting. The first episode flows really well and I laughed aloud a couple of times too! It is a tension-filled season but in a good way. Sydney (Jazz Raycole) is learning to take care of herself through Krav Maga, and I am here for it!
Kay-B: Definitely still sounds like there are a lot of power struggles happening!
Anika: Definitely, but you know what? The thing is, there are a lot of power struggles at a lot of universities because, a lot of times, that is all the power those people have, so that’s their chess board. There was an article in the New Yorker recently about the President of Howard University, and the struggles and duality of his journey and his perception of what he is trying to accomplish, versus how the students see him and what they think he’s trying to do. Some students are in favor, but some are in opposition. It was an amazing article. I thought, how interesting, because the truth of the matter is, it’s a chess board. In my school, Eva is Queen and everybody wants to take down the Queen. It is a fight to the finish.
Kay-B: Well, I cannot wait! Thank you so much for taking time to chat with us at Black Girl Nerds, it was a pleasure!
Anika: Thank you, it was a pleasure as well, and I hope to see you again soon.