October 11, 2022
John Singleton Scholar Feature: Kennedy Hill '23 and Kevin Maxwell '22
By Olivia Kuhn
The USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) is currently presenting a year-long celebration of the late writer, director, producer and SCA alumnus John Singleton '90 in collaboration with USC Visions and Voices and the USC African-American Cinema Society (AACS). More information about John Singleton: A Celebration can be found here.
In conjunction with this celebration of John and his iconic work, we sat down with two recipients of the John Singleton Scholarship for the Arts, which provides opportunities for students of color and underrepresented minorities within USC to pursue an arts education, and discussed their artistic journeys, John’s legacy and his impact on their creative pursuits.
Kennedy Niyah Hill ’23 is a multi-hyphenate creative who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Throughout her life, she has constantly immersed herself in all art forms - singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, writing. Her main passion of acting drove her to USC, where she currently studies acting under the acclaimed BFA program for Stage, Screen, and New Media. She created her own production company called Fifth Floor Studios alongside two of her friends, Wynton Jones and Dara Adedara. Together, they’ve created a place for Black creators to thrive without the impending gloom of feeling like an imposter; a place to truly express what it is to hold a multitude of identities alongside one's Blackness with a range of emotions. Their first project, A Black College Show, was Kennedy’s screenwriting debut and can be viewed on YouTube at Fifth Floor Studios. In the future, Kennedy plans on writing, producing and directing more of her own projects. She hopes to be able to one day open up her own acting studio to underprivileged Black and Brown kids who have not been given the option to create. She is currently playing Christine in Nora: A Doll’s House at USC’s Scene Dock Theatre, painting as often as she can, and working as a freelance social media assistant.
To view more of Kennedy’s work, you can visit Kennedyniyahhill.com.
Kevin Maxwell ’22 is a Los Angeles Native and a former Federal Terrorism Investigator for the Department of Homeland Security where he served as a lead terrorism investigations agent over the span of five and half years. Kevin's achievements ranged from leading federal agents into and out of high-risk terrorism surveillance efforts, conducting successful federal sting operations and successfully enhancing federal security effectiveness department-wide. This experience in inspired the confidence and determination for Kevin to ultimately resign and pursue his core passion in narrative storytelling, studying film and television production. It was this transition that led to Kevin successfully penning a short film, an ode to his late grandmother Cora entitled Cora, which depicted his grandmother's brutal encounters of racial and domestic violence. Cora still managed to become one of the few successful African American restaurant owners in the 1966 racially-charged Deep South in Memphis, Tennessee. The film went on to be screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase, and was shortlisted for a Student British Academy Award. This is what ultimately inspired Kevin to continue pursuing higher education and brought him to USC's School of Cinematic Arts.
Out of all of John’s films or projects, which would you consider to be your favorite?
KEVIN: Boyz n the Hood for sure. What lends credence to John Singleton most was that he had this ability to stick to his truth and know the value in his work. What makes the film even more powerful is that he gave all of the women and men in the film three dimensions of character. In other words, he didn't make them caricatures. These one-dimensional stereotypes that you usually see, he gave them depth. He gave the gang members in his movie three dimensions. They're well-rounded. That's typically how it is, they're not born bad. They're essentially victims of their surroundings and the conditions that they're born into. There haven't been many other films like Boyz n the Hood that have been that authentic. There's a lot of nuance and truth to it.
KENNEDY: I was going to say Four Brothers, just because my grandmother used to watch it all the time. I was way too young to be watching it, yet I thought it was so interesting. But I think my favorite project is Michael Jackson’s "Remember the Time" music video. I just recently found out that John directed it. Growing up, I would watch that music video constantly. It wasn't just a music video, it was a film. I remember thinking, “I want to make something like this.” A lot of the projects that I have made, kind of reflect the things that I learned through watching that music video.
Before coming to USC, what was your artistic life like?
KENNEDY: I lived in the suburbs of Chicago. The only thing that I was doing that my parents paid for was competitive cheer; but behind the scenes, I was singing and writing my own songs and coming up with TV show ideas with my best friend across the street. My parents weren't really paying attention to that. Then we moved to Texas. On one of the first couple of days that I started in my middle school, my art teacher told me to audition for a fine art school. I didn't think that I was that good at art. Two years later, that same art teacher asked me to audition for a part she needed in the school play, and I got it. I thought to myself, this is really fun. This is kind of easy for me. Through that, I ended up auditioning for the fine arts high school through acting. I think by going there, I kind of honed in on what I wanted to do. I think a lot of it had to do with the unpleasant pressures of some of my teachers there. A lot of them didn't really take me seriously. They wouldn't give me solos and they wouldn't give me the time of day, basically. I told myself, after I get out of here, I'm just going to make my own stuff, and it's all going to be Black, and no one's gonna be able to tell me what to do. Then, I was auditioning for schools and the pressure of feeling basically like an imposter was happening all over again. People were hearing which schools I was auditioning for and told me those were really hard to get into. Do you have a backup plan? And I said, I don't need a backup plan. This is the plan. I got into every acting school that I auditioned for. I chose USC because when you come here, it feels really good. It feels like a family. I think growing up, a lot of the reasons why maybe my parents didn't see an artistic career as an option was because they didn't see people who looked like me up there. I've made it my mission to not have any other young Black girl go through what I had to go through.
KEVIN: To Kennedy's point, when you tell your grandmother or your parents in the Black community that you want to do film and television, they are blown away by that because it's so rare. They view it as far-fetched because there's not too many of us that have done it. What really gave rise to a lot of my work was when I was in seventh grade and I met a teacher who kind of challenged us to get on stage and use our voices. She read us poetry by Langston Hughes and many different Black poets. I had always sketched a lot and wrote a lot of prose and poetry, so she challenged me to learn how to use my voice, hone in on it, and be a lot more authentic. That pretty much found its way into a lot of my work. Anything that I wrote after that—any poetry, screenplay, prose, or just journaling—was honest. It was just about my experiences and what I witnessed. James Baldwin, for example, was a witness. Artists like Tupac Shakur, even up to Kendrick Lamar today, are witnesses that tell you how it is exactly where they grew up and what they saw. Everything that I saw with John Singleton's work, the truth that was put into it, seeped into my work.
Kevin, you said in your letter of gratitude that like John, you hope to make films that elevate the social consciousness of those who watch them. Have you noticed any impacts that John’s work has had on the social consciousness of you or others?
KEVIN: As far as Boyz n the Hood, I have family that were from those environments. I saw and witnessed what was in Boyz. I don't view Boyz n the Hood as a film, it's a documentary. Down to the minutiae of when Ricky gets shot, how his mother reacts by covering her heart with her hand because she's so devastated. That comes from real place. If you've never seen anything like that, you might not notice it, but I have. From a socially conscious perspective, I want to be authentic in that way when making films. When I got to USC, it took a lot for me to get there because it was six months after my twin brother’s passing, who battled with mental health challenges. I basically locked myself in my room and I forced myself to be true, based on my family’s experiences of not really knowing how to help him. I'm glad that I did the film about him, A Beautiful Nightmare, because it's like a bookmark that I can look back on. Anybody that survives me can watch it and go, that's some of our history there. It's ultimately why I make films—to immortalize these characters and our stories from our perspective. That's what John’s films have done for me—it's made me want to immortalize those historical pieces and portraits of our lives.
Kennedy, you are studying acting here at USC and also have a passion for creating portraits of Black artists. How have John’s portraits of Black identity in his body of work resonated with you as both an actor and artist?
KENNEDY: I definitely think his work has influenced me by just putting the people around me that inspire me up on the walls. Over quarantine, my mom wouldn't let me buy any posters, so I just told myself, I'll paint them. I started to really take a passion through that because I feel it's truly empowering to see people who not only inspire you, but who look like you being represented in your space. Waking up and looking at these people everyday, has truly inspired me to completely be authentic. I think in John's work, that's all that he was doing. He wasn't trying to teach anyone a lesson or explain to anyone, this is what it's like to be Black. His focus was to tell his own story and not change it for anyone else or mess with it to make it more palatable. I think that's why I personally like to keep these portraits up. I'm continuing to make them, because sometimes I feel that we forget to be truly authentic, especially in predominantly white spaces, or in this industry that tells you that you have to change yourself to basically get your name and bright lights. I don't think that that's what it's about, and I don't think that anyone should have to do that.
To you, what does it mean to get an education in the arts?
KENNEDY: You said it earlier, Kevin, about our families not really seeing the vision. I think that has to do with the ideas of race in America and the opportunities that they were given or not given. My dad grew up in the projects and he was an artist, but he also had to help his mom pay the bills. I think the value of having the privilege to come here and study the arts is so crucial. So many times in neighborhoods that are less fortunate, who don't have the school funding in the arts programs, they lose that sense of creation. It always happens to the Black and Brown kids, never the other side. I do not take it for granted whatsoever, because I know how privileged I am as a person and who I look like being in these rooms. I know how important it is for me to reach back and bring five or six more other people behind me, so that they're able to truly experience this educational system.
KEVIN: In my estimation, studying the arts is definitely a privilege. It's one that we don't really have access to in a way that we should. Art is, in a way, liberating because it not only teaches you how to see, but how to really express. As a person of color, there's a lot going on inside. You know how to navigate life in whatever environment you grew up in and how you view yourself with those who are privileged. As a Black male, I'm compassionate and I want to save lives—that's what I've done my entire life and in my previous career. Me and my entire family come from a military background. But then when I step outside, I'm viewed as a threat; viewed as someone who can harm someone else. Experiencing that is difficult. But art gives us a way to be expressive about that, so you can take what's inside and make that clear and tangible for the audience to absorb and witness themselves. It also helps us immortalize our tongue and our history. I think an arts education is something that everyone should have the privilege to have. But unfortunately, it's not that way.
What has this scholarship meant to you and how has it inspired you to go further with your creative ambitions?
KENNEDY: I think it's inspired me to be fearless with my art. I think a lot of times, I am influenced by the opinions of other people. I think that getting this scholarship is only proving that I'm on the right track of where I need to be. Without it, I wouldn't be able to come to this school and to continue in the arts. I'm extremely grateful.
KEVIN: Getting the call that I got this scholarship was mind-blowing and profound. I feel truly inspired, I feel seen, I feel acknowledged, as far as my academic and artistic achievements. I think to Kennedy's point, you get here and you realize you're the only one. You don't really feel seen and you feel like you’re rendered invisible. You would think that you would stand out more because of who you are and your uniqueness, but it's not like that. To get this scholarship, I think it's a way for us to feel seen, acknowledged, and championed. It also gives me the motivation to keep going and to keep using my voice in an authentic way as an artist.
It was important to John to inspire students of color and underrepresented minorities pursuing an education. Following John’s footsteps, how do you want to inspire these students here at USC and beyond?
KEVIN: My goal is to climb the executive ranks of Hollywood so that I can be a champion for people of color, and not only people of color, but the other. I want to bring stories that are rare and overlooked. I haven't really seen any stories from the Afro-Caribbean experience, the Haitian experience, or the Black experience over in Amsterdam. I want to see more stories like that because they're bold and they're rich, and they have so much more to them. Why don't we as American audiences know about stories like this? They're so rich and interesting and unique. I've introduced a lot of people here at USC to stories like that and they would say, wow, I've never heard of that.
KENNEDY: I think as much as I don't like to say it, I do have a passion for teaching. At first, I didn't want to admit that because I'm not going to school to teach. I do have a plan of hopefully coming back here to USC to be an acting professor. When I first came in, there were no professors of color in SDA at all. If you want to change, you got to be the change. I also want to create acting classes for underprivileged students, because not a lot of people are teaching acting like that. It's an industry where you need money to make films, to learn how to act. If I could try and help with that cost and making it more available to people, I would want to do that.
USC is currently presenting John’s films as a part of their yearlong event, John Singleton: A Celebration. What would you hope for audiences to take away from viewing John’s work?
KEVIN: Nuance from the African American experience. We're not one dimensional, we're not what you have been inculcated or conditioned to see in the media. There's a lot of fear, I'll just put it that way. We fear the other that we don't really understand. I just hope that when audiences see his films that they take much more nuance and dimensionality from our experiences. I hope that it transforms the way that they interact and navigate the other people of color around them, their immediate peers, and that it helps them empathize a bit more and be a little bit more patient and understanding when it comes to having conversations with us and about our experiences.
KENNEDY: I would agree. I'd say nuance, especially in the sense of that we're not all a monolith. This is one story and hopefully, when people watch John’s films, they will do more research into other movies that they can see. I can tell just from coming to USC, a lot of the things that are held as the greats are white majority pieces. I hope people start to find more stories that maybe they aren't reflected in and that they can have a good time watching. Like John Singleton's films, a lot of other filmmakers are not trying to pander to audiences for them to get their stories. That's why it's so good—it's so specific and they're not trying to change it for anyone.
KEVIN: I was telling somebody that I look at films as anthropologies or ethnographies. Films to me are both audio, and visual ethnographies. They pull us into the world of the other. They teach us a lot about their experiences. It's not preachy or forced upon us. It's just taking us through their experiences without judgment and without prejudice. It's showing us their humanity and how they live. It’s about taking us into these experiences and becoming better, more well-rounded human beings. We're all different, but we're also similar in so many ways.