First and foremost a musician and producer, Abra knew that if she was going to make a move away from music into film, it would have to be for a project she believed in on multiple levels. She found that in the recently-released Assassination Nation, in which Abra stars alongside Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, and Odessa Young. Written and directed by Sam Levinson, the movie centers around a group of four high school girls in in small, suburban Salem, Massachusetts. To boil it down fast, Salem residents' phones start getting hacked. First the hacking hits public figures like the mayor and the high school principal, then it bleeds out to regular residents and high school students. Secrets are revealed, condemnations are made with gusto, and lives are in ruins. With everyone’s skeletons out of the digital closet, Salem becomes the site for a witch hunt of moral anarchy. What makes the film particularly unnerving is that despite the high-voltage aesthetic and psychological horror, such a violent, misogynistic free-for-all seems like it could really happen. And in many ways, it does.
The loaded symbolism was one of the reasons Abra knew that Assassination Nation was the kind of art she wanted to be involved in. As for the characters themselves, she felt Levinson was able to hit teen life, and more importantly teen angst, right on the head. “I wasn’t that outlandish,” she says of relating to her character in the film; the feelings were on point. “Now, I’m not a teenager anymore, so I can’t say for certain it’s a testament to how teens feel today. But I don’t think that angst goes away, even though the generation changes.”
Levinson accomplished a realistic approach to teen life, Abra says, by doing his research. “He showed me the script, and one of my first thoughts was that these characters talk like I talk. The script was nuts.” She was impressed by the authenticity. Levinson told her he had done some internet deep dives to get teen-speak and teen-feels down pat. “He said that Twitter is an open diary. If you want to know how someone is feeling, you just look at the their Twitter. It’s all out there.”
Abra adds that despite getting wholly behind the idea of exploring the “Wild West” of the internet and communication in the digital age, there were other elements in the film she wanted to make sure Levinson got right.
“I am a woman of color,” she says. “I was apprehensive.” As a piece of social commentary on youth culture and the internet, she knew the film was important. “But I thought that I’m going to do this, if I am going to step out of music, I don’t want to be a token or a Black prop, or be the reason it’s okay to use Black culture in some way [that isn’t actually accurate].”
And Abra helped ensure that wasn’t the case. While she noted that nothing in the script provoked the idea that she might serve as a token Black prop, when came to do an initial reading of the script with the cast, she noticed the one other Black kid in the room was the one she was supposed to have a romance with in the script. She called it out.
“I was the only Black girl in the room, and it made me feel like I was in high school again,” she says. “I’m the token Black girl, he’s the token Black guy. So I mentioned that to Sam after the reading. And he wanted to talk about it.” Knowing her thoughts, and the thoughts of the other actresses in the film, she says, was a major part of the process, and it changed the script. She points out that these conversation and Levinson's willingness to change is an important part of making a representational, collaborative piece of art that matters.
As for the film's commentary on the internet and how people use it, Abra is of the generation that grew up with the internet as a fact of life. She also happens to be someone who built her career and artistic persona first and foremost on the internet, posting songs and expressing herself in a way that felt more and more authentic to her. People responded. The internet made that possible. “First of all, the internet was my first safe place,” she explains. “I did not feel like a person there. I could express myself on the internet. I was able to build a persona online that felt more true to myself.”
And as much as it’s been her launchpad and canvas, the internet has been problematic for her at times, too. She has learned not to read comments and to practice taking social media with a grain of salt or two. “I have to be mindful of what I post, as someone with a platform," she says. "I’m an artist, and as an artist you want to be able to express yourself, but you’ve got to be careful. You can’t be too transparent. And you have to be mindful of who is watching.”
Abra has learned that the hard way a few times. People can just be straight-up mean, because, you know, online trolling is a bully’s dream; it can so often be done without repercussion, or having to even acknowledge that you’re interacting with a fellow human. “Some people are not out for the benefit of others,” Abra says. And that can be a painful reality when you’re on the receiving end of bad blood online.
“I feel like social media is damaging in many ways," she says. "I see my friends being damaged by the internet. Hurt people hurt people, and I know about a lot of hurt people getting on my friends pages and talking shit. But you don’t know what is going on with someone to make them respond the way they do to things you post.” Ultimately, she believes that it’s not just social media that’s a villain, but “righteousness as a villain,” she says. “The danger is people white-knuckling onto their ideas. The real problem is that people can’t or don’t want to change their minds.”
Abra astutely points out that social media is really uncharted territory, and that it’s not like we’ve got a unit in health class for dealing with everything we see and experience online. Yet we are barraged with ugly, violent stuff all the time. “It’s giving us trauma, and things get messy,” she says. “We are really at a stand-off. And [cyber-bullying] is psychological violence that can turn to physical violence. People getting shot for things they said on the internet. And I’ve lost friends, so many people in my life to drugs this past year, while there are songs out there talking about popping a percocet like it’s a Skittle and it’s just not. That’s not cool.”
But she, too, admits that she sometimes finds herself getting into a negative cycle on the internet, being critical, comparing herself to others, and being overly judgmental of other people on social media. “I’m on the internet being all judgy-wudgy, sometimes, but I have to remind myself to live and let live,” Abra says. “I ask myself, ‘What is going on inside yourself that you are judging someone that way? Who are you to pass judgment?’ Nobody.”
We seem to not have much forgiveness for ourselves and others, she says, and her hope is that as we go forward, we try to be more mindful and empathetic of how we interact with others online. At the end of the day, she says, people are just striving to be who they want to be.
“People are just trying to show the world who they want to be online. So, you gotta think that way when you’re scrolling, that this person I’m looking at is just trying to be seen as beautiful, or woke, or just trying to exist or figure things out,” she says. “They are just trying to be who they want to be.”
And how can you judge someone, Abra asks wisely, who is just trying to be heard?
Assassination Nation is out now; find screenings here.
Images courtesy NEON
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Annakeara Stinson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. You can follow her at @totalhellness.