DOC NYC ’19 Interview: Bruce Franks Jr., Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra on Uncovering a Citizen’s Hidden Powers in “St. Louis Superman”

There’s a moment at the very start of “St. Louis Superman” in which it feels like anything is possible as Bruce Franks Jr. can be seen sitting on the steps of his house with his son King, who’s a few months away from turning five – the kind of moment where it feels like they’re the only two people in the universe. They sing a little and talk about “Ghostbusters,” each having their own version they saw as a kid and Bruce makes a promise to his son to tell him what happened on the day of he was born when he reaches that milestone, wanting to hold off the real world a little longer. Franks Jr’s life changed forever on August 9th, a day that not only marked the birth of his son, but the death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was unjustly killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri mere miles from where Franks Jr. lived. The combination of the two events involving African-Americans full of promise led Franks Jr., a battle rapper and community activist, to run for the Missouri House of Representatives in 2016, and winning a seat to actually enact the changes he had been fighting for on the streets of Ferguson in the immediate aftermath of the Brown murder.

When Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan joined forces to make a film about Franks Jr., it was immediately decided that it wouldn’t be a rise to power story, as remarkable as Franks Jr’s political ascendance had been, or a fish-out-of-water tale when the 34-year-old with a tattoo to mark each year passed in the State Capitol where many of the members appear to have not changed much since the building was built in 1911. Instead, they watch as Franks Jr. wills legislation that would rebrand youth violence as a public health epidemic, a distinction that would unlock a greater amount of resources, into law, deploying the same quick wits he used in rap battles to passionately argue for the bill’s necessity and gradually revealing the very personal stakes he feels in achieving its passage. Even if his drive weren’t successful, it’s exhilarating to watch Mundhra and Khan follow Franks Jr. into rooms that aren’t accustomed to having a voice like his, whether it’s conservative talk shows where the host can’t generalize the person sitting in front of them and reduce their status or community centers where the formerly incarcerated have never seen someone who grew up in the streets with them have that kind of power and see the opportunity to make something of themselves.

With the film in Oscar contention for Best Documentary Short following Audience Awards at AFI Docs and the Traverse City Film Festival, the trio of Mundhra, Khan and Franks Jr. have been making their way around the county with “St. Louis Superman” in recent weeks with a stop today at DOC NYC en route to St. Louis where the film will have its surely spirited local premiere on November 17th at the St. Louis Film Festival and in the midst of this travel, we caught up with them to talk about the origins of the film, what convinced Franks Jr. to open up as much as he did and how the film is extending his work as an activism.

How did this come about?

Sami Khan: Smriti made this beautiful film a couple years ago called “A Suitable Girl,” which won a top prize at Tribeca and it caught the attention of Poh Si Teng, the commissioning producer of a program called Witness, which makes short documentaries. Poh approached Smriti about working on a film together and then Smriti loops me in and we started thinking about ideas about the 2018 midterms and issues around the criminal justice system, Black Lives Matter, and the legacy of Ferguson. They were all things that were going to be dated really quickly once the midterms were done, so Smriti had this story of this guy she had found in St. Louis who was a battle rapper who had suffered personal tragedy, but then because of Michael Brown’s death was politically radicalized and she said, “We should do a film about Bruce Franks Jr.”

Smriti Mundhra: We were looking for meaning in the despair of post-2016 and 2017 presidential election [cycle] and like a lot of people, we were looking for some kind of hope. Sami and I, coming from the backgrounds that we come from, being appearing to struggle in a different way, there was a different story. I think we all felt real good the day after inauguration with the Women’s March and those millions of people, but [those demonstrations] felt like symbolic victories. Victories that just were designed to make feel better and to sleep better at night, and there was a deeper story happening in the country, which is really recognizing that the people who are fighting the hardest are actually the most vulnerable and are sacrificing the most, especially for people of color in this country.

Bruce Franks Jr: And Smriti can tell you, she did everything to reach out to me — Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, like whatever she could do and I was putting it off because of Ferguson and some past experiences I’ve had with interviews and documentaries. I just didn’t feel people were really genuine about telling our story. They told the story that they wanted to tell, the story they wanted the world to perceive rather than let the story unfold and tell itself and have it centered around the people who are affected by it most. So my best friend Danielle, who is my legislative assistant, asked me matter of fact [one day], “Did you see this e-mail from this lady who wants to do this documentary for Al Jazeera?” and starts naming all this stuff. And I’m like, I don’t even know what Al Jazeera is, but go ahead and check it out and once you check it out, if you feel like we should do it, let me know.” After 45 minutes or an hour, she came to me and said, “You’re doing this.” And I’m like, “Alright, I guess I’m doing it.” [laughs]

When I first talked to Smriti, she had me at ease about the whole process. It wasn’t super-aggressive and I could just tell she was passionate about her work and what she was trying to do. The first thing she told me was like, “Look, if you had to tell your story, how would you want it told? That’s the only thing I want is to be able to just to bring your story and the story of your city to a bigger platform, if we can. And from there, it was just magic.

What was it like getting to know each other? Was there a certain scope to the story you knew of in advance?

Bruce Franks Jr.: I didn’t know anything. [laughs] I just knew that when they came in, the first day we weren’t even supposed to shoot. We were just getting to know each other and it was just a certain energy that I felt. And I just told [Smriti] what my day [was] and she was like, “Hey, if I can get a camera, can we just film it?” I was like, “Okay, cool.”

Smriti Mundhra: Around the time that we started this project, and especially when we met Bruce, a number of things had happened. Erica Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, passed away. Anita Browder, Kalief Browder’s mother, had passed away. These are all people who put their entire soul, their entire being into fighting for justice for their family and it literally cost them their lives and when Sami and I first met Bruce, we saw the superhero, but also spending time with him — and Sami was living with Bruce while we were shooting, so he really got to know him — we really got an intimate connection [where] we saw not just the superhero on the outside, but someone who was really hurting on the inside because he had to put so much of himself and open so many wounds to do the work that he did. That was the story we realized was more important for people to see and understand than the feel-good story of a 34-year-old black man with face tattoos being elected to the House of Representatives because that version of the story makes everybody feel good, but if [that doesn’t come] along with a recognition of the sacrifice and the struggle that comes with it, it’s meaningless. So we feel very fortunate and very thankful that Bruce opened up that more vulnerable side to us and it really happened over time.

Bruce Franks Jr.: There could’ve been about five or six stories from what we shot and they saw me going through a lot of different aspects of my life, like every aspect of my life. They saw me in places mentally and physically that I have family members that have never seen me in, so I knew it was going to turn out good whatever they did because they were so passionate about their work.

Smriti Mundhra: This is not the type of story you can get when you have a preconceived notion about what you’re doing and you go and check a few boxes of “I need this scene, I need this scene, I need this scene.” That really comes from keeping an open mind and letting the story find itself. And we were very lucky that Bruce allowed us into that aspect of his life, and we were very lucky that Poh Si Teng and Witness Al Jazeera, gave us that flexibility. They trusted us, even though we said when they wrote the check for us to make the film, we said, “We don’t have a story. I can’t tell you how this is going to begin or end.” But they knew we were going to get something, and it’s important to recognize that it was a process of discovery together with Bruce.

Sami Khan: I think we felt a sacred bond to Bruce to make sure we weren’t telling a story about him, but we were telling a story with him and when we got rushes back, that trust that Bruce had given us, it’s like a simple shot on a stoop where Bruce is really vulnerable that he let us be there for or the most private moments with his kids or talking to his mom, that intimacy and urgency – that really surprised us.

Bruce, what was it like seeing the final film?

Bruce Franks Jr.: It’s a bunch of different emotions. The most important one, though, is it’s refreshing to have a real story told about a real person doing real work in a real community that looks like so many other communities not only in the United States, but around the world. And to not just tell this story of triumph and have an ending like everything’s over and we saved the world, but to highlight the good work that’s done, the mental health issues, the different challenges of barriers, whether it be political or social, and understand how those play a part in our life, no matter what work you do. That’s the refreshing, empowering part, not to mention just giving humanity and giving a real identity to black fathers, [which] is very important and prevalent in the film.

Sometimes it gets a little rough because you do have to kind of relive those moments and see them during the panels where you’re talking, and people ask questions because they just don’t know, so the more you go around you talk about the film, the more you kind of relive it, but it’s gotten a lot easier and it’s also been more therapeutic being able to just get it out more and more, not to the point where it’s normalized, but to the point where I know I’m helping somebody else or we are helping educate somebody about communities that they know nothing about and changing their perspective.

What’s it been like to take this out into those communities and traveling the festival circuit?

Smriti Mhundra: It’s been completely overwhelming. Sami and I are both independent filmmakers and we’re used to working in a silo with very little resources and support and we made this film because we felt very strongly about Bruce and his story. We wanted to make the best film we could, but we always try to do that and most of the time, no matter how earnest your work is and how much of your heart you put into it, it’s a tough industry and there’s never any guarantee it’s going to resonate with people, so to see the way that this film has just captured people’s hearts and the opportunities it’s given to us as filmmakers, it’s really overwhelming and I feel really grateful.

Bruce Franks Jr.: The different places that we’ve been…some have been a pleasant surprise and some of them have been kind of a harsh reality of what challenges and barriers still lie, and I’m talking location-wise because all of the screenings have been great, but to go into all of these different atmospheres in different communities and cities and towns that you know nothing about, you get pleasant surprises like Missoula, Montana, which I think is the greatest place now. One of the best times I’ve had as a human, just taking the film out to good people, good atmosphere and I never even knew this place existed. [laughs] But then you have places we went where you can see the culture hasn’t changed much and that there’s still a lot more work to do, so it’s really been eye-opening for me.

“St. Louis Superman” will next screen at the St. Louis Film Festival on November 17th at 4 pm at the Missouri History Museum with Bruce Franks Jr., Smriti Mundhra, and local activists in attendance.