The newly created MTV Documentary Films, headed by documentary legend Sheila Nevins, held a special double feature screening of “St. Louis Superman” and “Gay Chorus Deep South” to celebrate its launch. We caught up with the directors and star of “St. Louis Superman” by the red carpet at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on Thursday evening.
“St Louis Superman” takes us into the life of activist, battle rapper, and Missouri House Representative Bruce Franks Jr. as he works to pass legislation to curb gun violence. A childhood survivor of gun violence himself, Franks demonstrates the power of a personal stake in political problem-solving, something often missing from politics at local, state, and federal levels. The film opens the door to a number of necessary conversations about what it means to truly represent a community’s best interests, finding a balance between being taken seriously by the political system and staying connected with the community, and most importantly, the cost of doing the work. Check out a transcript of our conversation with directors Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan, and with star Bruce Franks Jr. below:
The Knockturnal: Tell me a little bit about where the idea came from for this film.
Smriti Mundhra: We actually got very interested in local politics after the 2016 election when everything felt pretty hopeless. We wanted to find inspiration on the local level, find people who are really making change within their communities, started reading a lot of local papers and things like that. We came across a profile of Bruce who was elected at the same time as Trump and just started chronicling his journey into politics and it was incredibly captivating to see an activist and battle rapper, young black man in an overwhelmingly white state be elected to office. When we talked to Bruce we realized there was a lot more to the story than just that. He just had a remarkable way of connecting with people, including Republicans, including people who come from completely different backgrounds. There were a lot of personal stakes in his work because unlike a lot of politicians, he’s not several layers removed from the community that he serves, so everything that he’s fighting for, he’s fighting for himself, his own family as well. We were lucky enough to be able to connect with him and make a film about him.
The Knockturnal: I’m so thrilled because the film has been made because I actually hadn’t heard about Bruce Franks Jr. until basically this evening and I’m really happy that this story is being shared. I’m curious about the half-hour format, the short doc format. Where did that come from and what do you feel it allowed you to do that a longer or shorter version wouldn’t have?
Sami Khan: As a filmmaker, it’s good to work with restrictions and constraints, so from the outset when Poh, the producer, approached Smriti, we knew the format was. It was going to be around 25 minutes long and I think knowing that from the outset helped us, but again, it’s good to have those constraints. You could tell an epic about Bruce’s life. There’s so many things we had to cut out of the movie, so maybe one day we’ll make a – oh here he is.
The Knockturnal: Anyone can jump in on this question. Did you guys feel like you faced any obstacles to telling a story that felt authentic? It is a very difficult story to tell in some ways.
Sami Khan: I would throw it over to Smriti and Bruce because Bruce had had some bad experiences with filmmakers before, but Smriti saw the power in his story, and her empathy allowed us to connect with him.
Smriti Mundhra: And Sami’s too. I mean, he lived with Bruce while we were shooting. It took a lot of faith on Bruce’s part and trusting us to allow us into his life that way – to be able to be a part of and observe and empathize and for all of us to connect on a human level first and foremost. If you have that, if you have true trust and respect between filmmaker and subject…for us, we don’t really have a wall between those two things. From the very beginning, we said this is Bruce’s story. He is part of the film making process with us and he’s as much a storyteller in this as we are, so it was a collaborative effort from the beginning. When you have that, it’s going to feel authentic. It can’t not feel authentic.
The Knockturnal: Bruce, how did you feel when you were first approached for this film?
Bruce Franks Jr.: At first it was rough because I kind of didn’t answer the phone for a long time.
Smriti Mundhra: Months and months.
Bruce Franks Jr.: Because I had all these bad experiences and I seen so many different things happen with people trying to exploit Ferguson and a lot of the stuff that we went through. And the first time I talked to Smriti myself, she was welcoming and she just made me feel comfortable and when they came into town, it was easy. It was really easy.
The Knockturnal: How do you feel you guys built trust together? You said you were living with Bruce for a little while.
Bruce Franks Jr.: One thing about me and my family and where I come from – the moment you let somebody in your home, you trust them. Once you come into the doors of your house, you’re basically family and that’s the point that we were at. We shot at my home, we shot at my family’s, you know my mother’s, and they were around my kids. So it was a real family-oriented thing. It didn’t even feel like a film. It felt like family members were making home videos.
The Knockturnal: Not to ask for any spoilers, but were there – because you were constrained to this half-hour format, were there any pieces that you feel like you really wish could have made it to the film, but didn’t?
Bruce Franks Jr.: That’s the number one question.
Smriti Mundhra: Yeah, lots and lots and lots of things.
The Knockturnal: Does anything come to mind?
Sami Khan: Bruce has an eclectic taste in music, let me put it that way. So there was a couple of scenes with his son King and Bruce singing Hamilton in the car that for copyright reasons, we couldn’t work into the film. Smriti – I think probably the scene that she was most sad to lose was Bruce singing Rod Stewart.
Smriti Mundhra: We were driving to the House of Representatives in Jefferson City in like a red Superman T-shirt.
Sami Khan: Singing “Forever Young.”
Smriti Mundhra: Right, singing “Forever Young” in the car, no “Rhythm of My Heart.”
Sami Khan: Yeah.
Smriti Mundhra: I tried. I was like tweeting at Rod Stewart trying to get his attention to see if we could get clearance to use that and we sadly couldn’t. It’ll be in the outtakes.
Sami Khan: There’s so many sides to Bruce’s life that we only really scratched the surface of. Professional bowling, couldn’t get into that.
Smriti Mundhra: Plus a lot of the interviews that we shot. We shot probably like 6-7 hours worth of interviews with Bruce and not flattering him because he’s standing right here, but it was just – each one of them was so full of insight and depth and revealed so many layers to not only his own story and his own life, but also his community and activism, politics, mental health, so many issues, fatherhood. I wish we could have included more of that, but you know, gotta make choices.
The Knockturnal: Finally what do you hope audiences will take away from it? Or what have you seen audiences take away?
Bruce Franks Jr.: My biggest thing is the importance of black fatherhood, to understand that we’re here. We’re not these creatures that don’t exist like the media makes us out to be, as well as the importance of doing the work but taking care of yourself. Because ultimately that’s what this is about.
Smriti Mundhra: The way we deliberately crafted the story how we did is because we didn’t want people to walk away feeling like everything’s fine in the world and all the problems of the last several centuries down to the last few years are solved because of what Bruce was able to achieve. We really wanted to make sure people understood that it comes at a sacrifice and a deep personal cost. Hopefully, people will watch it and recognize that cost, especially people from marginalized communities, disenfranchised backgrounds who don’t have the traditional roots into spaces like this, that they make a huge sacrifice to do it. We all try to support, protect, and uplift them.
St. Louis Superman premiered on February 20th, 2019 at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and has since won several awards on the festival circuit.