Kylie, an intriguing short documentary about Tiny Little Pieces ballerina Kylie Jefferson that was included at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, not only teased the promise of a great filmmaker, but of a storyteller who’s brave enough to tell the stories he’s passionate about, his way.
Sterling Hampton IV didn’t just direct Kylie, but produced, wrote, edited, colored, and composed the project.
His director name, Master Sterling, is both a playful expression of his prowess, and a reclaiming of his “very British name” inherited by those who oppressed his ancestors. Just another one of those sparkling pockets.
The 27-year-old’s journey as a filmmaker starts at an unlikely place: dance. In his youth, he practiced hip-hop, lyrical, and breakdancing. At the time, it was his greatest passion, and he only decided to step behind the camera to capture his dance crew.
“That’s kind of where the turning point was,” he said during a sit-down interview earlier this year at Sundance. “Eventually, I started filming my next-door neighbors who happened to be my best friends. They were foster youth.” Hampton adds that the process of capturing their stories was “organic,” and from those conversations, a “mini-documentary” was born.
His mom decided to submit the documentary to film festivals in the area. And in those screenings, Hampton saw something that has informed the trajectory of his career.
“That was the first time I saw grown adults start to cry while watching something that I made,” he shares, clearly still touched by the sight. “It was so dramatic for me because I saw what the power of cinema can do to people on a subconscious level. You know, I don’t think consciously I was like yeah, I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life.”
And that’s what he’s done, except for those four years working towards a philosophy degree. At 21, he made a demo reel, which included footage from his first documentary and of kids he shot around his neighborhood of Riverside, California. He submitted the demo reel to a boutique production company, which eventually led to an opportunity “to have a meeting as a director to direct music videos for the likes of Chris Brown and Busta Rhymes.”
But he made one crucial mistake: he told them he was still in college.
Hampton was offered a standard, couple-of-months internship, which ended up being just what he needed. The position gave him something he had yet to have— an education in filmmaking.
Word of Hampton’s name rightfully reached the ears of many hip-hop legends, and he left the production company to grow as a creator. What followed were tours with Jeezy and the Black Eyed Peas (will.i.am took him under his wing) shooting content for them, and several music video director credits under his belt.
Amid his flourishing career in music video production, Hampton still had his eyes on his roots— documentary filmmaking. And in 2020, he found the right collaborator and subject.
“During the height of COVID, my colleague Adam Shattuck and I made this short documentary about this ballerina dancer named Kylie Jefferson,” he explains. “Her story was so compelling, and had so much to say about her struggle and strife and frustrations and successes within the ballet community, and what it means to be a black woman in that space.”
They shot Kylie in 6 hours. “Three one day, three the other in the urban streets of Los Angeles, and she speaks her truth,” Hampton says, adding that the process, similar to his first documentary, felt organic every step of the way.
Though he tries and downplays the process, Hampton did something spectacular with Kylie. His dance background shines in his ability to capture her body and its movement. His music video experience shines in his jarring scoring. His love for all Black women, not just Jefferson, glitters in his writing. It feels as though the short gives us a taste of everything that makes his voice as a filmmaker special, and it’s quite the debut.
“The most important thing is the story, which is the heart of your project,” he shares. “I think what stuck with me is knowing that it’s about the content of what you’re making, and how it makes people feel. And that it’s not about how much money you have to tell your story, it’s about understanding people.”
So what’s next for Sterling Hampton?
“The dream has always been to do feature films, like [Quentin] Tarantino, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, David Fincher type of work,” he says. “[Stuff] with a message and also just because for fun and things that are amazing for spectacle sake, too.”
It’s definitely just the beginning for this up and coming talent.