MTV hosted a special screening and director Q&A for documentary short “St. Louis Superman,” which is up for an academy award tonight.
“St. Louis Superman” begins with a conversation between father and son. On a warm evening in Ferguson, Missouri, Bruce Franks sits on a stoop with his son King, speaking somberly about his upcoming fifth birthday. King was born on August 9th, 2014, the same day Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson; what followed was a period of severe unrest, igniting protests and riots throughout the city.
“What else happened on August 9th?” King asks. Franks says he can’t tell him until he’s older.
Meditative moments as these frame the twenty eight minute documentary, one that is utterly deserving of a feature length cut but rests as a shorthand for a story of grassroots political progress in the face of countless odds. Franks is an earnest protagonist, a battle rapper turned house representative who wishes to raise Missouri’s collective consciousness to the youth violence epidemic that continues to plague the city.
Franks has attended one hundred and sixty seven funerals, and you can see it in his expression, in the slump of his shoulders as he leads his children through the streets of Ferguson – as he concentrates on a chant at a protest. “St. Louis Superman” traces the advancement of Frank’s proposed bill, one that ultimately passes and provides funding for initiatives that work to reduce gun violence in Missouri. Franks has an even more personal connection to the bill – it renders June 7th Christopher Harris day, Frank’s brother who at age nine was shot and killed while playing outside.
The film, which is up for best documentary short at the 92nd Academy Awards, faithfully portrays Franks’ activism as unglamorous and taxing, while all the more necessary. Its brilliance lies in the filmmakers ability to capture principal messages in a matter of short cuts. Highlights include King leading a peaceful protest in Ferguson, as Frank acknowledges in a voiceover that he has no intention of shielding his son from the harsh realities of being black. And then there’s the fantastic analogies between battle rapping and politics. They’re essentially the same, Franks says, in how they necessitate intense preparation, and in their use of combating rhythms and knowledge of debate to further a cause. “Battle rapping just pays better.”
The film’s ultimate triumph lies in its unearthing of an often overlooked and underreported consequence of being a politician or activist – the toll it takes on one’s mental health.
Director Sami Khan was present for the screening, and spoke after about his vision for the film and the rigorous editing process. Subtitling the movie’s progression, and deciding on a concluding coda presented certain challenges, one that Khan and his team deftly styled in a way that comfortably paced the movie. Khan said he was drawn to the relationship between father and son, as in tandem with navigating politics, Franks is navigating King asking questions about what it means to be black in America.
Additionally, Khan stressed the importance of treating the subjects of documentaries as participants, as it was important for Franks to be able to step away and level set when his health called for it. Franks served in the Missouri House of Representatives for three years before stepping down in 2019, citing health reasons – his best friend and godson were killed by gun violence in short succession. Khan reassured the audience that Franks, after a brief hiatus from St. Louis, was feeling much better and is in talks of a fiction feature film about his life, while Khan’s next project is a documentary series on battle-rapping.
St. Louis Superman is not currently available to stream, but will soon be released from MTV Documentary Films.