From Ferguson Battle Rapper to 'St. Louis Superman'
After the success of her feature documentary A Suitable Girl, Al Jazeera's Witness series asked Smitri Mundhra to make another film. It wasn't long before she knew who she would like as her subject. In the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election, with everyone despondent and the news cycle intolerable, she had been looking for inspiration in local stories. Through online trawling she discovered Bruce Franks Jr., a celebrated battle rapper who had won a seat on the Missouri State Legislature. Franks had been very active in the Ferguson protests over the 2014 murder of the unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, and was now trying to get a law passed that would recognize that gun violence was a public health epidemic, and channel resources towards treating it.
Mundhra wanted to make a film with Sami Khan, her friend from the Film Program at Columbia University School of the Arts. Documentary recently spoke via telephone with Mundhra and Khan about how this initial kernel of an idea, and the support of a documentary strand, led to their celebrated Oscar-nominated short, St. Louis Superman. The film follows Franks over the summer of 2018, as he successfully gets his bill passed—and names it after his older brother, who was murdered as a child. Franks' activism and immersion in the world of gun violence devastation clearly takes its toll, and a coda at the end of the film notes that he has stepped down from politics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: Could you expand a little about the origin of this film?
SMITRI MUNDHRA: We had this amazing person that we wanted to make this film about and we had this organization that was interested in funding it. But we had total radio silence from Bruce. We had been trying to reach out to him, and he just wasn't getting back to us. We were totally playing the game and saying [to Witness], "Yeah, we got it; he's ready and rolling." And then we were emailing Bruce and saying, "Look, we've got funding to make a documentary short about you." It took a few months, but we eventually got his attention.
D: So you had the money in place before you had the access?
SM: Yeah [laughs]. I can admit that now. Bruce had his legislative assistant call us back, and he wasn't interested at all in doing a film. He has seen the way a lot of journalists and organizations had come to Ferguson during the protests and how the story of Michael Brown had been co-opted and taken from the community. He was like, "I don't want to talk to these filmmakers from New York and Los Angeles."
All we really asked for initially was a first meeting, which he eventually granted us. I flew to St. Louis and met him and literally that morning we started shooting. There was an instant sort of bond and trust. We started shooting that morning and the rest is history. And now all of us are close.
D: How does knowing that it would be a short film inform your work differently than making a feature doc?
SM: I took seven years to make A Suitable Girl. I just kept shooting and shooting; the story kind of felt like it needed that because we had something that we were driving towards. We were trying to explore something that felt like a large passage of time, a real coming-of-age, and we needed to feel that journey, so we filmed for a really long time.
For Bruce's story, we sort of felt it out as we went along. Honestly, we didn't have a story for quite a long time and we were shooting and it was really just following the senses, following the emotions of Bruce's day-to-day life, getting to know him. The process of finding the story was really collaborative with him. At every stage we really tried to talk with him about what is the story that you want to tell and we will find a way to put that into a 25-minute film.
What we really started to feel was the toll his work was taking. He gave so much to his constituents, to his community in so many ways. Since we were spending so much time with him and especially Sami, who lived with Bruce while we were shooting, could really see the toll and the opening of the wounds that was happening every day, particularly because he was working on passing this bill that was named after his brother.
SAMI KHAN: For us as the filmmakers, we were cognizant of the fact that we were telling a story about trauma and we didn't want to re-traumatize Bruce. And so we wanted to collaborate with him and respect his boundaries. And not just prod him. Because for a long time in documentary filmmaking, there has been a tendency, especially from white filmmakers, to just extract the stories from people of color, treat them like objects and then move on. For Smitri and I, who are outsiders, and who have struggled for a long time in the film business and faced a lot of hostility, I think that resonated with Bruce, and he appreciated where we were coming from.
D: I know that you had Sheila Nevins from MTV come in just after your Tribeca screening. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to suddenly be picked up by MTV?
SM: We were at Tribeca and literally had just stepped off the plane; we hadn't even had a screening yet. And I got an email from Sheila Nevins and I thought I was being pranked. And I don’t think Sami had even gotten into town yet. We were talking and I was saying, "Is this real? What’s going on?" But she said she saw our film and she wanted to meet. So we had breakfast, and over breakfast she said she's going to be starting the documentary films division at MTV and she wants to buy our film and it's going to be her first acquisition. And she started throwing out numbers and said her lawyer was going to call in everything. And I was like, "Well, somebody already owns our film; it was Witness' film." And she said, "It doesn't matter; I want to buy your film." And what ended up happening was MTV and Witness Al Jazeera came together and made this deal where MTV has domestic broadcast rights for the film and Al Jazeera has rest of the world—which really works well for their respective focuses. It's like two giant organizations coming together and it happened, and now here we are.
D: I am assuming that's the first time they've partnered up like that?
SK: Yeah. For Witness, they are journalists and they are filmmakers and Poh Si Teng, our producer, really has really taken Witness to this other level. They are really still getting up to speed, and I think that’s where MTV and Sheila have been great. Because they have the experience of releasing films, taking them to festivals, getting them to audiences.
SM: Ours is the first film that Witness actually made an accommodation for a film festival release. Because budgets are not big and, really, you end up asking people to do a lot of favors and you put a lot of time into something without getting a lot of money out of it. So we said that the one thing we’d ask for is that we get a window just to at least try for festivals. So we delayed the broadcast date by three months. And around the time [we submitted to Tribeca], Poh had a relationship with the Big Sky Documentary Festival and they invited us and it ended up winning the Best Documentary Short award. And then after the recognition at Tribeca, it was like Poh's vision: "We are going to go all the way with this!" [laughs].
SK: Can I also just chime in on another tremendous mentorship we got from Sheila was that almost from the beginning, when Smitri pitched Bruce as an idea, we all talked about the importance of not sugarcoating this. Not making a feelgood story. And to make it true to this toll that Bruce's activism and political life had taken upon him. And Sheila's guidance in those last moments of the film were really, really valuable in talking about that feeling that we were going to leave audiences with. A big part of the resonance of the film is Bruce's magnetism, but I think another thing that people find appealing is that we are not sugarcoating it.
D: Is this a subject you will be revisiting? It does feel that there are more stories around Bruce to tell.
SK: Yes, absolutely. Bruce is doing his battle raps and he is travelling around doing battle raps around the world. He has a feature fiction film he is working on, and he has some ideas for short docs series that are really exciting.
SM: Bruce's physical health and mental health are in a much better place now because of the time he took off. And he's recently started working with an organization to teach other legislators of color around the country to do what he did in St. Louis—to help build gun violence prevention and things like that into their platforms and into their agendas for legislation.
St. Louis Superman screens as part of IDA's DocuDay LA, February 8 at 2:45 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Smitri Mundhra and Sami Khan will participate in a post-screening discussion. Click here for tickets.
Carol Nahra is a documentary journalist, professor and programmer. She blogs at docsonscreens.com and can be reached at carolnahra (at) gmail.com.