Above image: Filmmaker Mobolaji Olambiwonnu. Mr. Fish.
Throughout the uprisings inspired by the killings of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray and so many other Black victims, white leaders refused to learn from Black Lives Matter, a group inspired by the police killing of Trayvon Martin, 17, in 2012 and galvanized by the killing of Michael Brown.
August 9 will mark six years since 18-year-old Michael Brown was murdered by policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Miss. Since then, Wilson has walked free and the systemic issues that have plagued this nation throughout its history have gone unaddressed. That changed with the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, which so thoroughly shocked Americans and established that the lessons from Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement that rose from it never had been absorbed.
Now, at a moment of heightened awareness about racism, Black Lives Matter leaders and Black activists and artists such as the award-winning filmmaker Mobolaji Olambiwonnu are working to bring the lessons of Ferguson to all Americans. Olambiwonnu, a UCLA alumni and first generation African American, joins host Robert Scheer on this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about his as-of-yet unreleased film, “Ferguson Rises,” and why he chose to tell the tragic story from a perspective he finds lacking in mass media.
“I felt it necessary to reframe this horrible incident,” the filmmaker says of Brown’s murder, “and give people a sense that there is a way that we can find hope by looking within ourselves, by taking action, by becoming activists and organizing. That there is a way to find hope in each other by supporting one another.”
Olambiwonnu tells Scheer that when he decided to go to Ferguson to begin filming what would become the documentary, his wife was seven months pregnant with their son. Brown’s murder reminded him of his experience of being targeted, arrested and framed by police as a young man, and inspired him to want to make a film that could change the country into which he was bringing his child.
The mission Olambiwonnu discovered during filming led him to found the Hope, Love and Beauty Project which aims to “produce inspiring films and events that bring hope, healing, dignity and investment to communities in need across the globe,” according to the project’s website. “Ferguson Rises” is intended to be the first in a series, and the group is currently raising funds to finish the final edits on the documentary since they have found it difficult to find funding in Hollywood due to the deep-seated racism that exists within the industry.
According to Scheer, who has watched a rough cut of the film, one of the most remarkable elements in “Ferguson Rises” is the portrayal of white liberals who remained ignorant of the plight of the Black members of their own communities.
“The lessons [in your film are] so obvious,” says the “Scheer Intelligence” host. “Basically, people in the white community didn’t understand what was happening [in Ferguson, or] didn’t want to understand what the relationship of the Black community was to the police in [the St. Louis suburb]. I don’t think that kind of naivete in your movie would be demonstrated now after the death of George Floyd [who was killed] in a very similar kind of misuse of police power as happened in Minneapolis.
“We’ve had at least some sense of awakening,” Scheer posits. On the GoFundMe page for “Ferguson Rises,” the links between Brown and Floyd’s murders and the two moments of mass awakening are outlined poignantly.
“The lessons of Ferguson are more than just lessons around organizing and civil rights; they are lessons in building community and finding hope in the face of tragedy. These lessons can be instructive to this nation as it attempts to remedy and heal the deep divisions that stand in the way of our recognizing each other’s humanity.
What happened to Mike Brown Jr. happened to George Floyd, to Breonna Taylor and happens every 28 hours to another African American at the hands of police, security guards and vigilantes. More ‘Fergusons’ will continue to happen unless we all stand up and do something to end the underlying conditions of racism and injustice that cause this.”
Olambiwonnu hopes the fact that Black Lives Matter’s messages are spreading globally will not only help him finish his film, but also change the way stories by and about people of color are told in Hollywood.
“I think the challenge with Hollywood is that as liberal as it may be, it still uses racist sort of categorizations and ways in which it approaches media and products created by Black people,” says the filmmaker. “I hope that now, with the new awareness coming about, that that’s going to change, that it isn’t so difficult to tell our stories, and isn’t so difficult for people to understand that our story is a human story.”
Listen to the full discussion between Olambiwonnu and Scheer as the two explore the systemic racism that pervades every part of American life, the failings of white leaders to address racism in meaningful ways and the filmmaker’s personal reckoning with American racism as the son of Nigerian and Jaimacan immigrants.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I always say the intelligence comes from my guests, and I have not yet been disappointed in the four years or whatever I’ve been doing this. And my guest today is Mobolaji Olambiwonnu. Most of the time I refer to him as Mobolaji. I’m very familiar with his film work, his work in the industry.
He’s made a very important movie, which is not yet released, called Ferguson Rises. And I hope it gets released, because it’s one of those things, if you watched his movie, and if enough people had watched it, maybe police brutality would–and this is being naive, I guess, on my part. But the lessons were so obvious that, basically, people in the white community didn’t understand what was happening, [or] didn’t want to understand what the relationship of the Black community was to the police in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. I don’t think that kind of naivete in your movie would be demonstrated now after what has happened with George Floyd, the death of George Floyd, in a very similar kind of misuse of police power, murder, as happened in Minneapolis. And we’ve had at least some sense of awakening.
So why don’t we begin with that, because you’re making–you’ve made a movie, basically, about Ferguson five years later. And I assume that what you’re doing now with your film is connecting it with all of the demonstrations and what we’ve seen in the last few months, right?
MO: Yeah, I mean, definitely what we’re doing is–initially, I mean, we started in 2014, right after the non-indictment. And we’ve been filming off and on since then, with some breaks to raise funds, which is where we are again now, to sort of incorporate all the different areas of footage that we’ve captured. Our last trip was just around the fifth-year anniversary, which was last August, and where we got to spend time with Michael Brown, Sr., the father, and really look in a more unique way at the father’s grief–at a father’s grief, which we almost never see. I can’t think of an instance where we actually hear of someone being killed by police and there is a rush to talk to the father. So this film, in its new iteration that we’re working on, will sort of reflect a bit more on the father’s grief and the challenges that men have with speaking up, dealing with their pain, and really transforming it.
And so that’s where it will change from the rough cut that you’ve seen, slightly, and sort of incorporate those elements that really speak to Black male humanity. In specific, Michael Brown Sr.’s humanity, but by extension the humanity of Michael Brown, Jr., and by extension all Black men, who unfortunately in our society are not seen as having the full spectrum of emotions. Particularly–I mean, men in general, but in particular Black men, and then more specifically among Black men, men who may [look] a certain way. Which, you know, with gold–you know, the gold teeth, baseball hat, you know, baggy clothing, there’s an assumption that these folks are one particular thing. And our goal is to sort of break that stereotype and really access the humanity of this man and his son and other Black men. So that’s really what we’re doing with this journey.
RS: Yeah, and let me just say right off, I have great respect for this film. I’ve showed it in different forms in my classes, and you’ve come in and spoken. And you break a number of stereotypes, or examine [them]. And it’s interesting; watching the film, one would not know necessarily that the director is a Black man. You had evidently great ease in talking to people in the white community, even when they were tone deaf, even when they didn’t understand the anger in the Black community, the frustration and so forth. Somehow, you were welcomed into their kitchen while they’re baking bread; they talk to you in a very honest way. So you were able to get past stereotypes all over the place. And yet what was so frustrating was the disconnect of experience. That the white people that talk to you were tone deaf. Tone deaf and ignorant, in a way I suspect after all of the demonstrations, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, would–I think they would be less naive now. And I know you’ve said one of the hopes in making this movie would be if people had watched it, there wouldn’t be these further incidents. Do you think we’re actually going through some change now? Are they getting it?
MO: Yeah. I mean, I definitely do think that with the focus being on race at the moment, that people are beginning to open up. I mean, looking at the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list, seeing the number of books about race on that, is really heartening. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. I don’t recall that there’s ever been a period in history where people were actually exploring and talking about it. So conversations, I think, are being had now that were never had. And I’m hoping that we can maintain this, with the challenges that we’re facing, with the pandemic and the economy. I think it’s, you know, a good distraction from those things in a way, in a positive way, unfortunately, that people can talk about race while we miss some of [what] is taking place behind the scenes. So in some ways it’s a strange time to talk about it, but also I think it’s the best time to talk about it, since this incident has happened and since the folks in power and media and whatnot are all talking about it, though I don’t know what their motivations may be.
But it’s a great time to seize upon that time period, and really begin to talk about. And I think, again, people are talking about it. I’m seeing it happening with my neighbors. I’m seeing a sense of solidarity happening all over the world, for that matter. And I’m really heartened by all that, and the awareness that’s come about. Of course, now we have to turn that into on-the-ground action. And so my film is an attempt to call for that awareness and push folks in the direction of taking real action. I think the idea of creating a movie that perhaps has staying power, beyond the protests, is a great way of sort of keeping it at the forefront of people’s minds over time. And that’s the goal of cinema and media for me, is to really sort of keep these topics in the conscious mind of people who are watching. So yeah, that’s what we’re doing.
RS: Well, before I drop–I don’t want to drop the analogy between Ferguson and Minneapolis. But there was a similar deception at work. These are both basically–they were not nasty, redneck, Southern towns of old or currently. They had illusions that they were, you know, that their police department was fine; they came and got your cat out of the tree, or what have you. And that’s actually an image they hold up. And there was an abysmal ignorance. And we’ve seen that in both, in your movie about Ferguson and about Minneapolis, what it means to be Black in America. And now we’ve had actually very prominent, successful Black people step up and say, hey, this would happen to me, or it happened to my son, et cetera, et cetera. When you were filming in Ferguson, the white people you talk to–you would go back and forth between the Black and white community–they still were not getting it, even a year later. And I think even recently, before Minneapolis, I suspect they weren’t really getting it. Something has happened now. It’s not just seen as an isolated case. Am I exaggerating?
MO: Yeah, I don’t think you’re exaggerating at all. And I think I’m hoping that they’re different now; I haven’t talked to some of those folks since this all happened. But I think it’s also difficult because America associates–what would I say. I guess the best way to put it, I mean, it’s difficult because there’s a cognitive dissonance, I think. America has you believe you are a race, or you’re associated with a race of individuals, and a race of people. And so when that race of people is maligned in some way, shape, or form, or you perceive them to be maligned, I guess there’s a sense that we need to protect ourselves and sort of turn inward. And so I think there was a sense among the white community members that they were being attacked. And unfortunately–I mean, you know, the book White Fragility talks very much about this. But the idea of being attacked, or feeling like you’re attacked, I think certainly made people turn inward and say, well, we don’t see ourselves as bad people. We don’t see these police officers as bad people; they’re nice to us. And all that may be true.
And I think that’s what the film really talks about, is like, you can be a good person and still be contributing to racism and contributing to the problems. I don’t necessarily think these people are at their core bad people. I just think they are sometimes willfully ignorant, and other times just individuals who cannot bear to think of themselves as being on the wrong side of history, or as being on the wrong side of the equation. And so they wind up having to justify those positions in order to not feel what needs to be felt at this moment in history, which is what’s wrong and what doesn’t work. And I think that’s where a lot of people are not used to being uncomfortable. And now I think people are beginning to become used to being uncomfortable. And I think it’s worthy of embracing.
RS: Yeah. Your film, Ferguson Rises, begins with this white couple. Good church people, seem to be well-intentioned. Yet they referred to the Black demonstrators, particularly after the verdict came in–for people who’ve forgotten, in Ferguson there was no accountability in the judicial proceeding there. Despite the killing of this young man, and his body lying there for over four hours in the street. You know, they didn’t at first prosecute, and so forth. And you interview these people, they talk about the Black and white protesters–because there were whites who joined the protests, and so forth. But they refer to it as a temper tantrum. Was that the words that were used?
MO: Yeah, I mean, yes, something to that effect. Yeah. I mean, I think they definitely–again, I think what you’ve seen is the rough cut, so the final version may not open with them. But the role they play in the movie is crucial, because I think they are individuals who are in search of maintaining–in my opinion, in search of sort of maintaining the narrative that they have about their town. And so it is difficult to see people sort of puncturing holes in that narrative. And in particular with the protesters, you know, the protesters doing that based on their speaking out against the police station, and speaking out against the police department. I think this is very, just a very difficult time for them. And so I think, you know, when your life is interrupted, in a sense, it may appear like a temper tantrum. And so I think that’s their sense of what happened. And I don’t–my goal with the film was really just to allow them to have a voice, and to allow all people to have a voice. And so whether I agree or disagree is less the point than that people have a right to share and air their grievances, and then we can evaluate for ourselves what we think is the best response, or the most appropriate response to the circumstances. So I think that’s the approach that I took, and that’s what enabled me, I think, to be able to get into some of these houses and talk to folks, is because I wasn’t really there to judge them, but more or less just listen and see if we can find common ground.
And that’s essentially the focus of the film, is how do we find common ground with people we traditionally wouldn’t agree with? And how do we listen in a new way? And I think that’s the challenge. The only way we can really overcome this is to listen in a new way, and for the white citizens who were not part of the protests or against the protests, for them to listen and hear the folks who were involved in the protests, and Black people as being committed to the same thing they’re committed to. Right, I think both people are committed to having a community that works. Both people are committed to having, you know, peace and orderliness in their community.
And I think, unfortunately, many of the white citizens are committed to having a community that–or they believe that the community already works, in some ways, and this is a disruption. Whereas the protesters, some of whom are white as well, believe that the community didn’t work and they want to change it. But everybody has the same overall goal, which is to maintain or to have a workable community. And so if we can continually go back to that place of understanding that we both have the same commitment, I think there’s a way in which we can talk about this.
I have a background in conflict mediation as well through the city of Los Angeles. And that’s what I found to be the most effective way in dealing with conflict, is really starting with what we have in common, and then beginning to talk about what we don’t have in common after we’ve sort of established each other’s sense of shared values and shared humanity. And so this film focuses on establishing that with Mike Brown’s shared humanity, and the white community’s shared humanity as well.
RS: Yeah, it’s quite–look, first of all, let me take my hat off to you. I’m amazed that you didn’t start lecturing these people in their kitchens, or in the diner, or wherever they’re talking. Because, you know, it was infuriating. They are holding on to the narrative about their town. And this is, again, very similar to Minneapolis, an even more liberal town, with its own conceits about its enlightenment and how well it treats people. And the disconnect is so startling. You know, and these people you talk to–and they’re talking to a Black man, after all, in the middle of heightened tension, and they clearly think that you’re going to share their perspective. And clearly you do; you’re a great journalist in this movie, I have to say. That you were able to listen, to treat them with respect, to develop a relationship. But what they were saying was absolutely absurd. They were describing a town in which there was such alienation regarding Black people, such a disproportionate punishment; the whole town was supported on stopping people for traffic violations and messing up their lives to get the revenue to run the place. That was one of the things that happened in Ferguson, the total indifference to these people living in the projects and what their life–and you have that in Minneapolis. You know, oh, they’ll call the police and go crazy over a $20 bill that may be counterfeit, you know, and end up killing someone over a $20. You know, how many white people ever think that’s going to happen? You know, oh, it was obviously a mistake, somebody must have passed it to you. Who knows how you got it, we’re sorry, might have to give up the $20–but you don’t get killed over it. And what your movie Ferguson Rises is, this power of it, is without badgering people, without getting into arguments with them, just letting them talk, we realize how profound the racial divide is in this country. These are, you know, good churchgoing, liberal, almost–I don’t want to use that word, but they think of themselves as, the narrative is, we have this wonderful town here with no problems.
MO: And they’re Democrats, let’s be clear, as well. You know, so while they may be conservative, they are Democrats. So there’s this illusion that only the Republicans hold those particular views, but we see from this movie that a vast swath of people hold those views, particularly when they’re just not informed, or have chosen not to be informed, and just don’t have access to honest conversations. I think for the most part, Black people in America have learned not to talk to white people about what’s going on, not to believe that they will ever listen or they will ever understand. So I think to some extent these conversations can’t be had, because people have to feel like they’re going to be heard, and people have to listen.
RS: Yeah. And then what are they going to do about it? Because you actually keep up a relationship with these people; you go back and talk to them, and they still don’t really get it. And now this is really, the question is now, how many white people in America are really getting it, as regards to lessons from Minneapolis, or all the other examples we’ve had of the bias, the brutality, the deliberate scapegoating and alienation and so forth. Let me bring in and do full confession here. I didn’t meet you through your film; I met you when I was your professor at UCLA, a school that you graduated with cum laude honors, and were a wonderful student. But I met you in a class where we had some disagreements. It was, I think, 1994, and that was what, two years after Rodney King and L.A.’s confrontation with racism and police violence and so forth. And we had some strenuous arguments in that class, as I recall, about the depth of the problem and the racial component and so forth. And so it’s interesting to see. And let me say something else about your background. I am talking right now, and I’m always mispronouncing the last name, Mobolaji Olambiwonnu. And you had an interesting trajectory as an African American. So why don’t you tell us about it? You were born in Pasadena, California, but your father was a Nigerian doctor, your mother was from Jamaica. And take us through that journey of an African American who actually has African roots in his own immediate family.
MO: Yeah, I mean, I guess I’ll take you through that journey quickly. But yeah, I was born in Altadena, California, and then when I was two years old my dad wanted to return to Nigeria to–this was right after the Biafran war, and he wanted to return to Nigeria to be of service to his country, to take his medical degree and really work with children, because his background is in pediatrics. And my mom’s a nurse as well. And so they went back, and they went back to sort of the Africa in the seventies, where there was lots of hope and opportunity, and my father served in government there for a while. After a couple of successive coups, he wound up becoming a professor, and we really couldn’t live in the same town or make very much money. And so we decided, or my mom decided because she’s not Nigerian, that she didn’t want to suffer in that way, when she could actually come back to America and have a better life.
So, unfortunately and fortunately, we came back in 1980 to the United States, and my father started over. And I think it was upon my return to the United States that I had to learn what it meant to be African American. And that took probably another, I would say, 10, 11 years of different sort of racial incidences and experiences that came along with my losing my accent as well. And once I lost my accent fully, then people began to really perceive me as African American. And so there became this sort of conflict between who my parents told me I was, and who I thought of myself as, and who people perceived me as. And again, at the age of–or I didn’t say this, but at the age of 19, I was arrested and framed by the police for a crime that I did not commit.
And it was going through that experience of freeing myself from something that I didn’t do, that really opened my eyes and made me aware of what many of my African American friends had said. Because like the white couple in the film, and like a lot of the white people I interviewed–I guess this is probably what made it easy for me to interview them, is that I had that same perspective. You work hard, you do the right thing, there’s no reason why police would harass you. Like, it just didn’t make sense to me that anybody would go out of their way to cause you harm or destroy your life. Like people have that much free time on their hands to be able to do something like that.
But the way racism works in America is far more insidious than that. And it took me getting arrested and framed to really sort of embrace the African American experience, and realize that there perhaps are things that I didn’t understand, and that there perhaps is this irrational fear that I need to look into, that would make someone like myself with glasses and, you know, sort of a buttoned-down kind of more conservative-looking person, be harassed and framed by police at the age of 19. So it was like, you know, I had always believed that if I dressed properly, if I did the right things the appropriate way, that none of that would happen, and then at 19 I learned different, and that really opened my eyes.
And so in a sense, I always say it was through African Americans that I learned more about myself, learned more about African American history, but also learned more about Africa. I became more interested in where I came from, and the reasons that might sort of undergird all this racist attitude that people have in America that would enable them to–what would I say–I always say, I guess I’ll switch that a little bit–what I always say is that the African American experience is like science fiction. It’s completely unbelievable until you experience it, I think. So it’s not surprising to me that many people who are not African American don’t believe us when we say what happened, because it’s completely unfathomable that any of this should be happening, and that anybody would go out of their way to destroy a people and undermine them in such an active way, and not be sort of mentally deranged. I mean, I don’t know, there’s really no explanation for it.
So it is very much like science fiction. And so for those of us who are sane, for those of us who are not sociopaths, we can’t understand the sociopathic nature of racism. And I think for many white people, it’s difficult to grasp that this actually takes place when there’s nothing in their life that demonstrates that this is the way things operate. Their everyday life does not tell them that at all. So I think it’s difficult for many people to grasp that. So it was easy for me, in a way, to talk to them, because I was like, I felt exactly the same way you did. But the only difference is that I’m Black, and I got arrested and framed, and was forced to realize that things operated differently. But you weren’t.
RS: Yeah. And then when you were at UCLA, which is after that incident happened, is that right? Or–
MO: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it happened in my sophomore year at UCLA, or going right before my sophomore year, right after my freshman year at UCLA.
RS: And was that at the same time when Rodney King–
MO: It was the year before, the year before Rodney King. So I was adequately prepared and enraged by my experience, so that way when Rodney King came around, I was not in denial. I think prior to that, as an African, as someone who was always told he was different–which America is very good at telling you, oh, you’re African, you’re not like these African American people. I bought into some of that mythology. But luckily, that was all gone by the time the Rodney King incident happened, and I was able to see it for what it was, which was police brutality. And that was sanctioned by the state, and had no repercussions, right. So I think we see the beginnings of Ferguson, right, happening with that video of Rodney King being beaten. Which I mean, of course, this happened–this has happened for centuries, but it’s just being captured now on film and on video. And that was the first iteration, I believe, of police brutality being captured on film.
RS: Oh, if it had not been captured, no one–very few white people would have believed it. Even–well, I don’t know, we picked on Ferguson, we picked on Minneapolis now. Here was Los Angeles. And just as a little footnote to that, you know, in Minneapolis it’s a question of basically you’re stepping on somebody’s throat, knee on his throat. I had interviewed Daryl Gates; I was working at the LA Times at the same time when I was your teacher, and I had interviewed Daryl Gates about Rodney King. He was the chief of the police force, a person forced out of his job. And I asked him about the chokehold, because the LAPD had killed people with the chokehold. And he said, oh, the chokehold. He said the whole problem there is Black people have a different physiology. And they breathe differently. I couldn’t believe it! I was up at the police academy, people were doing target practice nearby, you could hear bullets and so forth. And he’s actually–and I have a film clip of it. I actually worked on a documentary, Stanley Sheinbaum who was the police commissioner, who ended up being instrumental in firing Daryl Gates. But he was in denial even then. The problem was not with the chokehold, the problem was the physiology of Black people. I want to make another connection here, because you talked about getting close to Michael Brown’s father–
MO: Before you do that, can I just say one more thing? I mean, this physiology factor, right, has always been something that’s used against African Americans, right. So even with Michael Brown, Jr., he seems to have this superhuman strength and this irrational mind, right, this animalistic mind, right, is how he’s portrayed, right? As someone who smoked marijuana, which is not generally something that inspires people to violence, but he smokes marijuana. And the assumption is that that has inspired him to violence, and he’s going to knowingly attack a police officer with a gun in his car, yet have no weapon on him. And you know, just the logic of it, and the fact that people are able to believe that so readily, that so many Black people who are not on PCP or something else would just automatically attack a police officer. It just doesn’t make any logical sense to me. I mean, none of us really knows what happened that day. But it’s this superhuman strength, this sense that Black people are, you know, innately animalistic, violent, and superhuman in their strength, that would enable people to really believe and be inspired to believe that Black people, unarmed, would attack a police officer. I mean, it makes no sense.
RS: And in fact, the way the police officer got off, was his defense was he–he testified–they were both of the same height, right? Six foot one or something–
MO: Six foot three and–somewhere around there, six foot three, six foot four. I think Darren Wilson was six foot three and Michael Brown six foot five, so maybe a couple inches taller than him.
RS: But they were both pretty tall guys. And the officer actually testified he felt like a five-year-old trying to wrestle with Hulk Hogan. Right? Do I have that right?
RS: And so–and that he had a demon look in his eyes.
RS: So talk about the perverse objectification of someone–
MO: And racialization.
RS: Yeah, I mean, he was a young man, actually. And you know, what was his crime? They said he shoplifted a couple of cigars, maybe, or something, you know. I mean, it wasn’t like, you know, killed people or something.
MO: Right. And that person would all of a sudden decide to be violent and escalate things without any real prior history of being someone who was a criminal or actively violent. But all of a sudden, in that moment, he would change and become this person that we all believe Black people to be, and attack a police officer. I mean, you know, the logic of it is just so disturbing. Yet that is the mythology that our country operates on. And that is the way that we’ve been able to get away with killing so many African American people, because they’ve always done something wrong, right? We can’t look at ourselves, so we have to point the finger at someone else, because we’d rather not look at ourselves and look at the problems that exist within our culture, and our racist sort of ideologies.
RS: Yeah. And when you say ourselves, you mean white people.
RS: Yeah. So let me get it to end on a sort of personal note. You got close to Michael Brown’s father, and you’re a father of a young Black kid, right?
RS: And so this is not an abstraction.
RS: This is a reality in every Black person’s life, and certainly if they have children.
RS: And I just want to close this, really, by–you know, there’s something, I don’t want to say naive; I find it very appealing about your basic philosophical attitude that comes out in this movie, which you’re really trying to find the good in everyone. And in fact your project is under the Hope, Love and Beauty Project, right?
MO: Yes, exactly.
RS: And yet it seems to me that optimism is really tested by the reality you see. And we’ve missed out a whole big journey that you’ve had; you graduated with honors, and your master’s film got awarded from the, you know, the industry. I’m not going to go through all of that, but you won the Directors Guild of America’s student filmmaker award; you’ve, you know, worked hard in the industry. And maybe you could just tell us that one incident where you were meeting about making a movie, and they told you, oh, we’ve already had our one movie for the year on this subject of race.
MO: Right. I mean, I think–yes, I mean, I do want to address both of those things you said, actually. The first one being that I’m a father; my wife was seven months pregnant at the time when I chose to go to Ferguson. It was a very difficult decision to make. She had a rough pregnancy, and with her blessing, I decided to go to Ferguson to look for an alternate narrative. I knew that she was pregnant with my son, and I knew that it was a boy. And there was just something inside me that when Michael Brown was killed, that I couldn’t help but remember my experience being arrested and framed at 19, which was a year older than he was when he was killed. And I could not help but think, well, this could be a future that my son has to face. And so for me, I felt like I didn’t want him to face that future unprepared. And by preparation, I mean prepared psychically, and in his soul and spirit. And I believe that our children are given so little hope, and so little sense of, you know, hope, love and beauty, which is what the project is about. So little sense that they can find hope in the midst of all this tragedy that’s taking place, that for me, I felt it necessary to reframe this horrible incident and give people a sense that there is a way that we can find hope by looking within ourselves, by taking action, by becoming activists and organizing. That there is a way to find hope in each other by supporting one another.
And the message that I feel like I want to leave my child and other people’s children is that if we turn to each other–I remember my lawyer, after I got cleared of all charges from being arrested and framed, he said to me, he said, you could make this about the handful of people that tried to destroy your life. Or you can make this about the 150 people who came to your rescue. It’s up to you. And at the time, at 19, I was annoyed, and I thought he was just trying to excuse these people who had done this horrible thing to me. But then I realized that the same lesson applies to my experience in Ferguson, right? We can make this about the handful of police officers and other individuals who’ve destroyed lives and taken lives, or we can make this about the protesters and the individuals, the thousands and thousands of individuals whose lives were changed by experiencing the protest, by becoming politically active, by becoming aware.
And so for me, that’s where the hope, love and beauty lies. It lies in the people whose lives have been changed, and the people who are beginning to see things differently. And I think that’s what we forget, because we focus on the tragedy only. But we don’t focus on the fact that Michael Brown, Sr., is now a totally different person as a result of his child dying. I mean, of course he didn’t want that to happen, and no one would want that to happen for him. But he’s a totally different person; his life has changed. And that’s the part that I want to recognize and uphold, is that in the midst of all this, people’s lives are changing. People are finding ways to reorient themselves towards hope and to make a difference. And that doesn’t happen in the standard media narrative. The media narrative is solely about tragedy. And I cannot leave my son with the sense that his future is only sort of ladened with potential tragedy, as opposed to also opportunities for hope, opportunities to create something beautiful in the world, and to really embrace and hold on to the idea that he is loved, you know. So that’s where the hope, love and beauty project comes from.
Yeah, with regards to my experience in Hollywood, a version of this film was done in around 2016, which is our initial cut. And we went to meetings, and they were very positive. And there were times where we were taken aside, or one time we were taken aside by one of the Black agents in the room at a major agency. And she had mentioned to me that they, the agency was pushing another Black documentary that year, and that it would be highly unlikely that they would push two Black documentaries in the same year. And it just really sort of struck me that while there are hundreds of documentaries about World War II, that all these people could sit in a room and talk about how much they love the film, yet be completely disinterested in pushing it because they’re pushing another Black political documentary that year. I mean, it was like, you know, I felt like it was like 1970 in that room. And I think this is the experience that many filmmakers of color experience, is that one film might be made about a particular subject matter, and it’s as though it’s already been covered. And, you know, and that there’s no other potential perspective that could differ from the perspective that was shown in that particular one film. So it’s like, it feels as though we have fewer choices and fewer ways of accessing the industry with our ideas and our vision.
And I hope that now, with the new awareness coming about, that that’s going to change, that it isn’t so difficult to tell our stories, and isn’t so difficult for people to understand that our story is a human story. Not another Black documentary being released in the same year by the same company, but in fact a human story that may have Black people in it, but is also related to a universal experience that we all share. And I think that’s the challenge with Hollywood, is that as liberal as it may be, it still uses racist sort of categorizations and ways in which it approaches media and product created by Black people. And so that experience–I won’t name any specific names, but those folks really sort of threw me for a loop, because I didn’t believe it was an issue. And my mentors and some of the other folks that I know in Hollywood were encouraging me to rush and get this film out as quickly as possible, because they knew that this was the Hollywood that they had experienced, and I just didn’t quite believe them until, unfortunately, that happened.
RS: Well, I hope it’s a new day. And I must say, to close on this, the great value of your film to whites, as far as I’m concerned, is that it holds up a mirror that a white person would have to look at. And the white people in Ferguson that you introduce us to, they’re not cartoon figures, and they represent the weakness of the white response. They represent the confusion, they represent the moral indifference in a way that I think many white people would see something of themselves in that, and then hopefully change. If people want to see the trailer, what do they do, they go to the Hope, Love and Beauty site? Is there a, can you just give us a connection?
MO: Well, we are definitely, we’re in the middle of fundraising right now to finish the final round of editing. So they can go to GoFundMe and search for the film Ferguson Rises. And you can see the trailer, and you can see our fundraise there, and support hopefully with that as well. We want to get as many people supporting and aware of what we’re doing as possible, so we can raise the funds in order to complete the film. And this is also the challenge of being a person of color as well, is that the interest and the budgets that are allocated towards film that relates to, you know, relates to our experiences are much smaller. And so we want to change that as well, and want to break that cycle. And we hope that everybody listening will contribute and be a part of breaking that cycle. Because that needs to be broken.
RS: Great. Thank you, Mobolaji Olambiwonnu. The film is Ferguson Rises. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these programs and getting it up at the NPR station, KCRW. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who writes the introduction. And Joshua Scheer, who is in charge and produces these shows. And a special thanks to the JWK Foundation, which has helped us financially to do this work, in honor of Jean Stein, who was a terrific author and by the way a very strong supporter of civil rights, and an activist. So see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.
MO: Thank you very much.