The Academy Awards are less than two days away, so Bruce Franks Jr. has his acceptance speech ready. He just won’t share it—not unless St. Louis Superman, which profiles the Missouri state representative and battle rapper, wins the Oscar for best documentary short. Franks’ journey from MC to anti-gun-violence activist to legislator, inspired by the killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing unrest in Ferguson, has proven as affecting as it was unlikely: The 28-minute film by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan won multiple awards on the festival circuit in 2019. Before joining Mundhra and Khan in the Dolby Theater Sunday night, Franks talks to LEVEL about how the documentary changed his life, how he knew when to walk away, and how he got that S on his chest.
–As told to Beandrea July
Legislator and battle rapper are the same job. You take the same exact approach in each one of them. As a state representative, one of the main things you do is debate bills that either get passed or die on the floor. In order to fight those bills, you have to know everything about those bills: You have to know what proponents are saying, what opponents are saying, you have to have your rebuttals together just in case somebody has some feedback. You always have to be on your toes and expect the unexpected, and it's the same way with battle rap.
Plus, in the state house you speaking in front of no less than 160 people at a time on the floor. You're trying to captivate them to get them to vote with you and get them to understand where you're coming from. Just like being in front of a crowd of a couple hundred.
Being a legislator, sometimes I worked 100 hours a week. There are no time cards. There’s no clocking in. It’s a job that they say is supposed to be part-time, but you can’t be a part-time representative when you have a community going through full-time oppression, challenges, and barriers. So you have to dedicate the extra time. And at the end of the year, after taxes and everything, not really having room to work anywhere else because you represent a very demanding community, you’re taking home $17,000. Trying to take care of your kids and the necessities of life with $17,000.
I started rapping back in 2000 as Oops, and had songs on the radio in St. Louis. I was a well-known local artist. The end of 2013 was my first battle; initially, it started as a promotional tool for my music, but I fell in love with battle rap. Then the death of Michael Brown changed my whole message, and really helped me identify who I was as a battle rapper.
Everybody started calling me Superman because I would be everywhere at the same time. I would take on so much, and I’d just keep going. At that time, I wasn't really aware of Black Panther, that there was even a Black superhero—so I took on Superman. Just like you got Superman and Clark Kent, you got Bruce Franks and Oops. No matter whether he had his cape on at night, he still had all his powers. He just had to decide if it was good to use his powers or if it wasn’t.
My brother got killed in 1991. I was six; this idea of gun violence, this idea of death was new to me. It was the first funeral I ever been to. After that I had a close uncle get killed, a godson get killed, all of these different folks. Going through all these deaths, you never get the chance to grieve. And then when it happens so much and you haven't addressed them head-on, you become numb to it. You begin to think that all of this is normal.
Going through the filming process, reliving all these things that I had boxed away and put in the deepest parts of my soul, helped me even more.
Right before we started filming the documentary, depression and anxiety came full force. At one point I thought suicide was the best option. When I got away from that idea, I started to realize how much all of this was taking out of me—and that there wasn't anything pouring into me. I was giving everybody every piece of me, with nothing left.
I had to step back and say, what are the things that are taking me to this dark place? And politics was one of those things. As much as I love my community and what I represented by being in that position, I couldn't serve any more effectively due to my mental health. Great leaders lead, but great leaders also know when it's time to let somebody else lead. So I made that step, and it was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
For Black and Brown men struggling with mental illness: It's okay to not be okay. We don't have to prove that we tough. It's okay to cry. It's okay to be vulnerable, no matter how scary the thought of that is. And it's okay to seek help. Help might not necessarily look like a licensed therapist or medication or any of those things. Those things absolutely help some people, but it might be confiding in somebody that you trust. In a lot of cases, being able to talk about it is healing in itself, especially for people who have bottled it up and kept it tucked away.
Going through the filming process, reliving all these things that I had boxed away and put in the deepest parts of my soul, helped me even more — even though it got hard. It’s always therapeutic watching the film to see where I was at and where I’m at now.
The biggest change since the documentary came out is the broadened platform. We’ve been able to get the message out about the things that the film touches, and to be in these rooms that we need to be in to let people know, “your perception and my reality are a little bit different, so let me tell you like exactly what it is for real.” Not through you watching the news or some internet clickbait, but me telling you what real life is where I come from.
We tell people, especially young Black kids, that they can be anything they put their mind to—but we don't show them. We tell them, “Oh, just be yourself,” but then we try to change everything about them. I was able to remain who I was, remain true to myself, and show my community that someone from 4300 Gibson on the south side of St. Louis can be a state legislator and still be a battle rapper and still be an activist and have tattoos on his face and dress the way he dress. It is all possible.