Oscar-nominated 'St. Louis Superman' sears with powerful, intimate scenes

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Image: contributed photo, used with permission.

St. Louis Superman starts like a family video vignette, but watch out, this 28-minute documentary packs a punch, both information-wise and emotionally.

It opens on a sunny day on the doorstep of a home with Bruce Franks Jr., a 34-year-old activist and battle rapper from Ferguson, Missouri, chatting with his then-four-year-old son. It's a light moment tinged with menace as Franks and his son talk about his upcoming fifth birthday on August 9.

"Something else happened…on the day you were born," Franks intones. Indeed. It is the day in 2014 that Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African-American, was gunned down by a policeman in Ferguson, located just outside of St. Louis. Brown's death would spark months of protests in the area and across the U.S., and cast a fierce glare on the systemic oppression of black people in America.

Franks is an engaging individual, and the film captures intimate moments during a crucial time in his life: becoming a state representative to better his community while also honouring his older brother. Franks and his brother, then nine, were playing on the front lawn of his family's home when his brother was shot dead.

Franks enters the state senate with style and purpose. In 2016, St. Louis had the highest murder rate in the U.S. Franks has been attending memorials and funerals since the death of his brother more than 25 years ago. There is a price to pay.

The truth of life in America unfolds amid shots of Franks in the hallways of power and having to answer questions about his intentions on a TV show in which a white host, claiming to be a typical 'hillbilly' Republican, praises Franks for being his friend. It is uncomfortable moments like this that reveal what Franks is up against. How smart of the filmmakers -- American Smriti Mundhra and Canadian Sami Khan -- to drop in these scenes without too much exposition. Khan, originally from Sarnia, Ontario, also served as one of two DOPs on the documentary, which was first produced through the MTV documentary short program.

"You are fighting against an entire system," says Franks in voiceover.

A health emergency

Much of Missouri's state senate is made up of white Republicans. Franks has a personal mission -- pushing through a bill that would declare youth violence as a health emergency and thus releasing public funds to deal with it. The film states that within one year, there have been more than 200 murders in the area and most of the victims are aged between 16 and 24.

The verité documentary flows naturally as it follows Franks on his duties. Franks is as his surname indicates: he's honest and plain-speaking about his situation.

"Most of these representatives [in the senate] are unwilling to understand my community," he explains.

On a visit with a group of ex-prisoners, Franks sympathizes with the struggles of the men, and tells them how he grew up just as they did: poor, with a lack of resources, nothing to do after school and no police around.

Franks' father spent more than half his life in jail. His best friend was imprisoned at age 14, and came out at 31.

A key, riveting moment is when Franks decides to do a battle rap, the first he's done since entering political office: "it's the same kind of preparation [only] battle rapping pays better."

His rap opponent has accused him of becoming the establishment. Franks is keyed up, and what transpires is a brilliant takedown referencing everything from Lebron James to Cujo (the Stephen King novel) as he lists what he's done for the community while also criticizing how others in the community cast him.

The film also sojourns into his home life and time with his mother and two kids: an older daughter and his young son. It's natural and sweet. These scenes never feel staged. The authenticity of the story and Franks shines through.

As the documentary draws towards an end, we find out the toll activism has taken on him. Franks is trying to commemorate his brother and holds on to the few memories he has: "I remember he taught me how to play Nintendo."

A lot happens near the end and I won't say too much about it. See the film.

This short film is able to provide much depth and breadth on the issue of gun violence and how it affects African-Americans while also bringing to light the personal tale of one activist.

I'm left with an enchanting and powerful scene from St. Louis Superman where Franks is marching with his son -- the viewer gets to soak in decades of pain, loss and redemption bathed in sadness and hope.

'This sacred bond'

In an email, Khan said they made the film with Franks and not just about him.

"The thing that we were most struck by during the filming was this incredible trust and intimacy Bruce had given Smriti and I," explained Khan, who is now based in Toronto. "That intimacy between filmmaker and subject I think is really exemplified by the opening scene with Bruce and his son King…When we recognized this openness Bruce had given us, we felt that we had this sacred bond with Bruce not to betray it and make sure we were doing right by his story."

The team filmed on and off from April to August 2018, collecting 70 hours of footage. Khan said he thinks they had an advantage of sorts.

"Smriti and I are both outsiders," wrote Khan. "Smriti grew up a woman of colour in the suburbs of Los Angeles and had to fight tooth and nail for everything in her career. I'm bi-racial and Muslim and know a thing or two about being demonized and hated. So, the fact that Smriti and I aren't from the dominant group and have this critique of the media built into our nature, allowed us to bond with Bruce in a way that other filmmakers may have struggled to."

The film is up for the Oscar documentary short subject award on February 9, 2020. In fact, it's been collecting prizes all last year from such esteemed festivals as Tribeca, Hot Docs, AFI Docs and Indy Shorts. When asked about the meaning of it all, Khan cleaves tight and true to Franks' aims.

"It's nice to screen the film for all the fancy and lovely people in Hollywood but our goal is to connect Bruce with communities and activists who stand the benefit the most from [his] message."

Follow St. Louis Superman on Twitter for updates on screenings and viewings.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Image: contributed photo, used with permission.

Editor's note, February 5, 2020: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the documentary was produced through AJE Witness, the documentary program of Al Jazeera English. In fact, it was produced through the MTV documentary short program.

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