The Oscar-nominated short documentary St. Louis Superman introduces viewers to Bruce Franks Jr., whose voice has become a clarion call against racial injustice. His message was first manifested as a practitioner of battle rap—an art form noted for its contest of ideas between two performers—before he became a Black Lives Matter activist and later, remarkably, an elected representative in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Franks’ BLM activism was spurred by the 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager gunned down by a white police officer. The documentary reveals how throughout his life Franks has navigated a world beset by gun violence and endemic racism that has left people of color with more opportunities to grieve than to celebrate progress.
The film directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan and produced by Al Jazeera Witness became the first acquisition for MTV Documentary Films under the leadership of Sheila Nevins, the former longtime head of HBO Documentary Films. St. Louis Superman—the title comes from the nickname Franks’ constituents gave him—is now contending for an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
As the nation pulses toward a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism, Deadline spoke with the filmmakers and Franks about mass protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and the contentious issue of reforming—or defunding—police.
DEADLINE: What do you make of the massive demonstrations we’re seeing after the death of George Floyd, as well as Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor?
BRUCE FRANKS JR.: It reminds me a lot of August 9th, 2014. Michael Brown was killed and it ignited something across not only the United States but the entire world. [But] after that, we still had people dying at the hands of the police. And so now it’s like history repeating itself, as it does.
I know people are waking up all across the world and that’s great, and I would never take away from people now getting into the social movement and fighting for Black lives, but people have also got to realize that Black folks are tired. We’re just tired. We’re tired as hell of going through the same things and now we’re hoping for something different but it’s hard for us to be cautiously optimistic when we’ve only seen cops getting off even after all of these movements…in Ferguson and across the world. Michael Brown—that officer [who killed him] is living his life somewhere with his daughter and his wife, free of everything. And so I am grateful for what’s happening, but it’s tiresome. It’s tiresome.
DEADLINE: Arguably little resulted in terms of structural change after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
SMRITI MUNDHRA: I’m encouraged and cautiously optimistic about everything that’s happening and the very real commitment to change that we’ve never had the courage as a country to talk about before. And that’s all great. I think it’s really important also to recognize that the activism has to go beyond posting black squares on Instagram…It’s important to think beyond the performative aspects of it…Showing solidarity is incredibly important, but what’s more important is utilizing this moment to really reflect about the ways that each of us has upheld systems of oppression. And I think what’s really unique about this moment is that we can have that conversation in a way that we couldn’t before. The word ‘racist’ or ‘racism’ was so triggering before for people who are not Black, that that’s where the conversation would stop. I think there’s a little crack right now where white people or non-Black people who have a lot of privilege are finally able to acknowledge the impact of the privilege that they’ve had, and the impact that they have had in upholding systems of white supremacy.
DEADLINE: One of the key focuses right now is on police reform. And there’s the question of whether more radical action is needed to bring about real structural change.
FRANKS: All these politicians and stakeholders want to come out and have listening sessions now and the first thing they say is, “Well, we need to talk about police reform.” No, we don’t need to talk about police reform. We’ve been talking about police reform since the Civil Rights Movement. We’ve been talking about police reform since after the Black Panthers. We’ve been talking about police reform since what happened to Rodney King and Michael Brown. And now we are here again, 50, 60 years later talking about the same things. It ain’t broke, it’s working the way that it was intended to work. Policing was started as a slave patrol, and at the end of the day, they still hunt down Black folks. They are still locking up Black folks unjustly.
The only way to reform the police is to abolish the police department…especially in Black and brown communities that are most affected by police violence. When we talk about defunding the police, yes, that is a mechanism in order to get to a point where we can abolish the police department. We know what the root causes of violence are…We need to start allocating those funds that they are misusing and overusing and allocate those into the community piece by piece…Because you can’t train somebody how to look at me like a human being. You can’t train the racist out of somebody…I’m an American just like everybody else, but I’m Black. And if you can’t look at me like that, I don’t need you in the police department. I don’t need you so-called “protecting and serving” me, or anybody that looks like me, or anybody that has any melanin in their skin. So we cannot reform, we have to abolish. No, we cannot ‘train,’ we have to get rid of.
DEADLINE: At some demonstrations we saw some police officers ‘take a knee’ with protesters in solidarity. But recently the head of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police said any member who takes a knee could be thrown out of the organization. Does the symbolic gesture of taking a knee have any meaning, or are police going back to a tribal mentality?
SAMI KHAN: [Officers taking a knee] is a cynical ploy…But the thing I worry about is, what’s the next version of that? What’s the 2.0 version that police departments and the prison industrial complex are going to deploy to try and deflect attention from the real issues that the leaders and protesters across the country have done such an amazing job of articulating? Because the system is so powerful and it’s so wealthy and it’s so invested in white supremacy that they’re not going to just go quietly into the night…The idea of public safety and public security is just an enforcement of white supremacy and, honestly, white terror in Black communities. And I don’t have a hopeful idea from that because…I see the superficial attempts to placate people or show alliance and ally-ship. But then when it’s time to have the conversations about race, they feel even more charged and more difficult because people haven’t done the work. And this goes back to the kneeling thing. If you’re doing the work you don’t need to do the kneeling. You don’t need to insult Colin Kaepernick and the legacy of George Floyd. If you actually mean it, do the work.
FRANKS: Excuse my language, but [police officers kneeling], that don’t mean s**t. At the end of the day you have a man who was killed with a knee on his neck…No, I don’t want to see officers kneeling as a gesture. I want to see officers speaking up and speaking out about systemic racism. I want to see officers filing complaints on those other officers and not staying true to that blue line of violence.
DEADLINE: In this supposed time of heightened consciousness you have Rayshard Brooks, who fell asleep in the drive-thru lane of a fast food restaurant in Atlanta, who winds up dead after police arrive. [The officer who shot Brooks after he fled has been charged with murder]. Deescalation didn’t seem to be practiced there.
FRANKS: Tamir Rice was in a park playing with a toy gun. Philando Castile did exactly what they asked him to do. Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson in Texas, Botham Jean, were all in their own homes. The brother in Atlanta made a conscious decision not to drive because he was inebriated and admitted to the officers that he was. He was the one deescalating. They were the ones escalating. They get into a scuffle where, no, he didn’t want to go to jail. Yes, he’s still under the influence—he is still unarmed. Even if he takes your Taser and shoots it back at you, one [other officer] still has their Taser. This is still considered a nonlethal weapon. So why would you shoot a lethal weapon at him knowing the only one that he has is a nonlethal weapon? Only thing this proves is that every time Black folks and people of color walk out the door we are in a war we didn’t sign up for.
When you see my skin and you see my very being as a threat to who you are before I even open my mouth, before I even pose a real threat, and my life is in danger every single time I wake up, what else do we have to do? What more reform do we have to talk about? How much more voting do we have to do? Who the hell do we need to vote in, in order to get America to see that we belong here just as much as anybody else, if not more because we built the damn place? What else can we do? I don’t know what the solution is anymore. I got a million policy ideas. I got a million funding mechanisms. I got all of that. At the end of the day, it’s not going to stop a police officer, and even going beyond that, a white person who doesn’t see me as equal, who doesn’t see me as a human being, who still looks at me the way that their fathers looked at me…They don’t look at us like a human. They don’t look at us like we should be here.
St. Louis Superman is currently available to stream for free at Pluto TV.