Superlatives swirl around Bruce Franks Jr., the focus of the Oscar-nominated short documentary St. Louis Superman.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever met a human being quite as remarkable as Bruce, who just contains the sheer amount of talent but also this life force, this energy where just greatness seems to surround him,” comments Sami Khan, who directed the film with Smriti Mundhra. “He’s like a movie star or the greatest hip-hop performers. He just has this presence that’s magnetic.”
That magnetism drew followers to Franks as he established himself in the St. Louis area as a leading figure in “battle rap,” an art form where freestyling rappers duel with each other on a public stage. Most battle rappers deploy verses to ritualistically reduce their opponents to pretender status, while extolling their own gifts. There is some of that with Franks, but he has a way of taking the verbal jousts to a more profound level.
“He’s known for this in his battles, to kind of get to a deeper emotional register,” Khan notes. “The way he plays with pop culture and history and also just hooks you forward…I just am in awe of his storytelling skills.”
Franks’ gift for communication came to the fore in Ferguson, Missouri as protests erupted after the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed African-American teenager who was shot to death by a white police officer in 2014.
“We were in Ferguson for 400 days. We lasted over a year. When the cameras left, when all the media left, we were still there and marching in the streets,” Franks tells Deadline. “We were treated a lot like our civil rights ancestors that came before us. I mean, you see the old pictures and the old videos with the dogs and the batons and the pepper spray and the tear gas…I remember going to see [the movie] Selma and just crying all the time because you know that scene from the [Edmund Pettus] bridge looked just like us out in Ferguson.”
Franks took his activism further, winning a seat in the Missouri state legislature.
“My motivation was for the people in my community. That’s who pushed me to run,” Franks notes. “I wasn’t into politics before that. Hell, I barely voted. But when the community started to come together, and we started to see that, yes, we need to protest, we need to disrupt, we need to be out there, shutting it down. We also need to start doing things to make substantial change in the community.”
“St. Louis Superman” is what his constituents began to call Franks. The film shows him campaigning for a bill to declare the alarming level of gun violence in the city a public health epidemic. Remarkably, he was able to convince the legislature, controlled by white Republicans, to back the bill.
“There is just a boldness to everything Bruce does,” Mundhra marvels, adding she’s found that inspiring. “I’ve definitely learned personally to speak up more and not worry so much about disrupting the status quo when something doesn’t feel right.”
There were very personal reasons for Franks’ advocacy against gun violence. When he was a young boy his nine-year-old brother was killed when one of two men in a gun battle grabbed the child as a human shield. Franks reflects on the pain of that loss in St. Louis Superman. Part of his ability to move people is that he doesn’t disguise his feelings.
“That’s one of the powerful things…to just have that authenticity of being vulnerable to make people understand, to paint that picture for them even if they never went through what you went through or came from where you came from,” he observes. “You’ve got that ability to do that as long as you’re willing to be vulnerable. And so I really take pride in being vulnerable because I think there’s this stigma, especially for men—and especially, especially for black men—where we have to be a certain way and we have to be tough, or we have to be this and that. It’s like, no, I’m going to cry, I’m going to yell, I’m going to laugh. I’m going to do whatever makes me happy, whatever makes me sad. I’m going to make sure folks know exactly what emotion I’m trying to portray.”
The cinematic portrait of Franks defies the troubling image of black males purveyed in much of mass media, whether in his vulnerability or his loving relationship with his children, including his son King—a dynamic four-year-old who seems to have inherited his father’s charisma.
“It’s important for people to see those dominant narratives challenged because they’re false,” Mundhra declares. “They’re stereotypes. And so something as simple as a man spending time with his son and caring for his son feels different.”
After three years in office Franks made the decision to resign from the legislature last year, and plans to leave Missouri.
“You can’t heal from trauma where you’re in the epicenter of it,” he explains. “Every day I wake up, every day I would go outside, there’s something that reminds me of some traumatic experience that I’ve been dealing with, be it my own or via injustices that I was fighting or just…young people from the community who are passing away…Eventually everything started to weigh on me, and I had to put my mental health and my physical health in the forefront.”
Franks will attend the Oscars, along with filmmakers Khan and Mundhra. He did not hold back last week when he heard St. Louis Superman announced as one of this year’s nominees for Best Documentary Short.
“We were all watching, and you would’ve thought I had trampolines on the bottom of my feet. I was just bouncing around the room yelling at the top of my lungs,” Franks recalls. “I just started crying. So it was a whole bunch of mixed emotions. I didn’t think it would feel the way it felt, but it felt amazing.”