Film by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan chronicles Bruce Franks Jr. who went from 'battle rapper' to Missouri state legislator
Not all superheroes wear capes.
Take Bruce Franks Jr., for instance. He earned the nickname 'St. Louis Superman' from his constituents in Missouri where he represented the 78th district in the state legislature. His gift is not leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, but overcoming obstacles in inspiring fashion.
The story of how Franks survived childhood trauma to become adept at battle rap -- a kind of performance art in which rival rappers engage in poetic combat -- then became a civil rights activist and later an elected official is told in the short documentary St. Louis Superman, directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan. The film, which earned an Oscar nomination earlier this year, debuts tonight on the MTV networks, simulcast on MTV, VH1 and MTV2.
He just has this presence that's magnetic.
"I don't know if I've ever met a human being quite as remarkable as Bruce, who just contains the sheer amount of talent but also this life force, like this energy where just greatness seems to surround him," Khan tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "Someone was telling me the other day they watched the trailer and they were, 'Oh, my God, that guy is amazing.' It's this magnetism. He's like a movie star or the greatest hip-hop performers. He just has this presence that's magnetic."
The film project originated three years ago as an assignment from Al Jazeera Witness and producer Poh Si Teng to explore themes related to the upcoming 2018 midterm election. But when the filmmakers became acquainted with Franks they realized they were onto something with broader dimensions.
"Smriti read this story about Bruce Franks, Jr., and she pitched it to Poh and I, and we were like, that is a story that has legs," Khan recalls. "There's something timeless about Bruce's story. There's the depth to it that's not going to be dated when whoever is the president."
When Franks was a boy his older brother, just nine years old, was killed in a gunfight when he was used as a human shield by an assailant. Years later, when unrest broke out in Ferguson, Missouri after a white police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, Franks was there to protest alongside many others.
"We were in Ferguson for 400 days. We lasted over a year," Franks tells me. "When the cameras left, when all the media left, we were still there and marching in the streets, because after Michael Brown was killed, somebody was killed by the police every month for the next year and a half. And so we have plenty of reasons to be out there in the fight and protest."
He ran for office, won election, and somehow found a way to work with the overwhelmingly white and conservative legislature to make meaningful progress on issues, including an attempt to reframe gun violence as a public health matter.
"We've learned so much [from Franks]," Mundhra observes. "It's hard to even summarize how much, but certainly I think there was just a boldness to everything that Bruce does. I used to sit quietly and politely in the face of any kind of injustice, whether it's sort of day to day stuff or something much bigger. And I've definitely learned personally to speak up more and not worry so much about disrupting the status quo when something doesn't feel right."
Franks attended the Academy Awards in February with Mundhra and Khan. The day he learned the film had earned an Oscar nomination was one to remember.
“We were all watching [the nomination announcement], and you would’ve thought I had trampolines on the bottom of my feet. I was just bouncing around the room yelling at the top of my lungs,” Franks recalls. “I just started crying. So it was a whole bunch of mixed emotions. I didn’t think it would feel the way it felt, but it felt amazing.”
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.