Bruce Franks Jr. had hit rock bottom. As 2018 was coming to a close, he wasn’t sure he’d make it to 2019. But an Oscar-nominated documentary, “St. Louis Superman,” saved his life.
The 28-minute film is a slice-of-life look at the polarizing Franks, a battle rapper, activist and advocate against gun violence. In his Rocky Balboa underdog-to-champion story, Franks lands a seat in the Missouri 78th District House special election in 2016.
The film was directed by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan and released by MTV Documentary Films.
After filming the documentary for five months in 2018, while juggling his legislative duties, Franks struggled with depression and anxiety. At home alone in St. Louis, his thoughts turned to suicide.
He was grieving the back-to-back violent deaths of his best friend, Sylvester Hamilton, and his godson, Gerrian Green.
There was a ripple effect. He began to second-guess his role in the Missouri Legislature, pondering how he could save the lives of strangers as an elected official yet not protect his own loved ones.
The 35-year-old, divorced father of five started questioning everything.
“What am I doing? Is it effective? Am I better off not being here.”
On a whim, Mundhra called Franks to check in. He told her he wasn’t doing well. She had the fix: the finished cut of “St. Louis Superman,” which he hadn’t seen.
“Within the first few minutes, me and King (his now 6-year-old son, King Bruce Franks III) popped up on the screen,” he says. “Watching the film and seeing my son — it was just what I needed.”
In the documentary’s opening scenes, Franks tells his son that, one day, he will learn the significance of Aug. 9. That’s King’s birthday, but it’s also the day Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson.
Franks heard the news of Brown’s death in 2014, while blowing up balloons for King’s first birthday party. He immediately left to become an activist on the front lines.
After his initial viewing of “St. Louis Superman,” things turned around for Franks. He’s feeling better, thanks to therapy, travel and exercise. He also moved away from St. Louis to concentrate on his mental health — he won’t say where — but returns monthly to visit his kids.
And then there’s the Oscars. After screenings at countless film festivals, including the St. Louis International Film Festival and the STL Filmmakers Showcase in 2019, “St. Louis Superman” earned an Academy Award nomination for best documentary short.
When the Oscars are handed out Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, Franks will be there with his parents, Bruce Franks and Earline Banks. St. Louisans will gather downtown at the House of Soul (1204 Washington Avenue) to watch the live broadcast.
On Jan. 27, Franks attended a luncheon for Oscar nominees in Los Angeles, where he mingled with stars including Brad Pitt, Robert DeNiro, Kathy Bates and Laura Dern.
It’s a lot to take in for someone from 4300 Gibson Avenue in St. Louis, which he often proudly touts.
“This is amazing,” Franks says. “It really is indescribable to know there’s so much excitement about me. Everything I’ve done, I did because it was the right thing, whether it was music or running for office. I’m super excited.”
Talking recently at one of his favorite local haunts, the Pearl tattoo studio downtown, where he once worked, Franks says he set his alarm the night before the Oscar nominations were announced. “It was like Christmas morning,” he says. “I was waking up every hour checking the time.”
As he watched actors Issa Rae and John Cho present the list of nominations on TV Jan. 13, he knew the documentary had a good chance — it had been shortlisted as one of 10 vying for five slots — but he was still anxious as the nominees were revealed.
When “St. Louis Superman” was named, Franks says, he yelled, jumped, laughed — and then cried for 15 minutes.
“It all hit me. It was just a year ago I was going through everything I was going through with politics, depression, anxiety and a failed suicide attempt,” he says.
Congratulatory messages came from all over. Actor Mark Ruffalo, whom Franks had met on the film festival circuit, tweeted his congratulations, as did former housing secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro.
Franks’ father, a small-business owner in St. Louis, is also proud.
“He never ceases to amaze me,” the elder Franks says. “But I didn’t see this coming. Whatever he latches onto, he works so hard at it that he makes himself sick.”
Roland Page always knew Franks was destined for greatness. Page owns Pearl and was Franks’ first music manager, back when he started performing as rapper Ooops.
To Page, the Oscar nomination came as no surprise.
“He always had a greater calling because of his passion. He was always unorthodox about anything he did.”
‘More to the story’
Franks knows the pats on the back aren’t coming from everyone. Some don’t see him as much of a “St. Louis Superman,” a nickname that was given to him by ex-wife Dana Kelly-Franks.
Some may take issue with his former position as an elected official. Others may cite his running afoul of the Missouri Ethics Commission, which fined him $14,169 after an investigation into his campaign fund found discrepancies with his filings. He stepped down from his office in August 2019 and has agreed to pay off the fine.
“I’m not expecting everyone to be happy for me,” he says. “Those are the people who weren’t gonna be happy for me (anyway). They’re going to nitpick, whether it’s me fighting for black lives or being an elected official with tattoos.
“There’s nothing for me to explain to them,” he says. “Life is good. I can’t give (detractors) that mental energy.”
“St. Louis Superman” started to take shape when the film’s co-director, Mundhra, who lives in Los Angeles, came across Franks’ name in a Post-Dispatch story. She had been researching politicians involved with activism and was immediately captivated by him.
“He had won the election, but I felt like there was more to the story,” she says. “I reached out to him to see if we could meet and talk about it. Four months later, he finally got back to me.”
Franks purposefully ignored Mundhra’s emails and messages on Facebook and Twitter. “I think at one point she sent smoke signals,” Franks says, jokingly.
He says many people tried to exploit the stories of Ferguson activists, and he wasn’t willing to take a chance. But his assistant urged him to consider Mundhra’s requests. Once Franks agreed to meet with Mundhra in St. Louis, he liked her vision for the documentary.
Filming began that same day in April 2018.
Christopher Renteria, a co-producer of the 2017 Ferguson documentary “Whose Streets?,” was brought in early as cinematographer. Hundreds of hours of footage were shot for the project.
‘This is me’
Putting himself out there for all to see was easy for Franks. He credits the filmmakers for capturing an authentic representation.
“They did such a great job of just blending in,” he says. “A lot of times I forgot I was being filmed.
“The parts with King — that’s how we talk, that’s our normal conversation. This is me every day, from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep.”
The film captures his time in the Missouri House of Representatives, his battle rapping, his family life and more. Franks also talked about his older brother, Christopher Harris, who was killed in 1991 at age 9, when a man grabbed the boy and used him as a human shield in a shootout.
That tragedy fuels much of Franks’ work.
“We’re so grateful Bruce trusted us enough to let us in,” Mundhra says. “That was really brave of him. He’s the best documentary subject I’ve ever worked with. In my world, when I look at what makes a good subject, they’re not just a subject. They’re collaborating, storytelling and they have something to say to the world.
“My job as a filmmaker is to put that in cinematic form. He was open and vulnerable and had so much on his mind, and it was easy to capture amazing footage of him. He never tried to conceal anything from us.”
Franks and the film’s directors took “St. Louis Superman” to various festivals, many in cities where no one looked like him or the filmmakers. Though he was apprehensive about how the film would play in those places, all went well.
“We have a full team of people of color — I was nervous,” Franks says. “But when they were watching the scenes, the way they were reacting to the battle rap scenes ... afterward, there was just this roar.”
Typically, a Q&A session followed each festival screening. His self-introduction — “I’m Bruce Franks, and I’m the St. Louis Superman” — got audiences hyped every time.
At the St. Louis International Film Festival, the film got its own screening at the Missouri History Museum, rather than being lumped in with a block of other documentary shorts.
Franks’ son King was in attendance for that one. He asked his father about his greatest superpower. Franks replied that his superpower is the thing he fails most at: communication.
Franks then asked his son about his own biggest superpower. Too many things, the boy replied.
Still fighting for people
Now that Franks has been bitten by the film bug, he’s hooked.
He’s in the early stages of directing a second documentary about the mental health toll on activists such as himself, as well as an animated short.
And he and Mundhra are working on a battle rap series; he’s creating, and she’s producing.
Franks is also battle rapping full time. In 2019, he won eight rap battles. He’s currently recording and entering more competitions across the country.
Says Page, his former manager, of battle rapper Ooops: “He’s a surgeon. He’s going to dissect you. He’ll see your weaknesses and expose them.”
While Franks’ enthusiasm for rapping is as strong as ever, a return to politics is not in the cards. That’s a definite no, he says.
“I do see the usefulness of being elected, but politics is for patient people who understand things aren’t gonna change overnight,” he says. “I’m not that patient person. I need to be serving in the war of the streets, where a lot of the politicians won’t be.”
Leaving his constituents wasn’t easy, but he says the office is in good hands with State Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis. Franks says his successor will see through what he started.
Looking back at his time in office, Franks says, it was “dope, but it definitely came with challenges and merits.”
Making the leap from 4300 Gibson Avenue to the Missouri Legislature in Jefferson City made him feel like a superhero. For the first time, he says, some people paid attention to who was representing them because their representative looked like them.
“It was amazing, but there was also everything else that came with it — the challenges and the barriers.”
Now Franks is working with the Community Justice Action Fund, which holds elected officials and community leaders accountable for ending gun violence in communities of color, the group says.
“I want to keep doing that work — work that’s dear to me.”
But first, the Oscars.
Franks says he has been preparing for the big night the same way he prepares for everything: by going against the grain.
“I’m not gonna put a tux on, but I’ll wear something fly,” he says. “My shirt will probably have something on it that will make people uncomfortable. I’m going to be the same person everyone knows.”
Should “St. Louis Superman” triumph, expect fireworks.
“If he wins, he’s going to give the speech of his life,” Mundhra says.
Who will win the Oscars? Only best picture seems up for grabs
Is 2020 the year Oscar acquires an international flair? Or will it be business as usual? That’s what the race will come down to when the 92nd Academy Awards are presented Sunday. By Bruce R. Miller, Sioux City Journal
Best supporting actress
Will win • Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”
Could surprise • Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”
Dern is such a lock, it’d take a presidential inquiry to deny her. In addition to being an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governor, she is a second-generation actress who has delivered great performances and never won. This year, she’s such a solid performer, it’d be a shame to look elsewhere. Johansson could nudge her only because she’s nominated twice in one year.
Best supporting actor
Will win • Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”
Could surprise • Joe Pesci, “The Irishman”
Like Dern, Pitt is a solid choice. Even though he has an Oscar for producing “12 Years a Slave,” he hasn’t won for acting. He’s superb in “Once Upon a Time” and deserves the recognition. Everyone else in the category has an acting Oscar. He’s the odd man out. He’s going to be the winner.
Will win • Renee Zellweger, “Judy”
Could surprise • Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”
Zellweger, who won a best supporting actress Oscar in 2003, had a long dry spell and seemed out of the hunt for any awards. Then, she landed this biography of actress Judy Garland and showed just how good she really is. While Johansson accomplished much as an actress going through a divorce in “Marriage Story,” she didn’t have the same kind of challenge Zellweger did. Play an icon? Sing? Dance? Make her seem sympathetic? Zellweger did it all.
Will win • Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Could surprise • Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory”
A solid contender for years, Phoenix upped the creep factor by playing a would-be comedian who transforms into an eerie killer. The dark, depressing film had its detractors, but Phoenix was universally praised. He has won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG awards going into the Oscars, so he should be safe. Still, if “Joker” is too difficult to embrace, Banderas could slip in with his first nomination.
Will win • Sam Mendes, “1917”
Could surprise • Any of the other four
If there’s a big love fest for “Parasite,” director Bong Joon Ho could easily get this one, too. Quentin Tarantino has never won in this category, and Martin Scorsese only has one directing win despite a career that outshines all the rest. Only Todd Phillips (who directed “Joker”) would need a miracle to best the others.
Will win • “1917”
Could surprise • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” or “Parasite”
When “La La Land” didn’t win best picture (even though it was erroneously announced as the winner), that said something about the academy’s desire to give trophies to films about Hollywood. “La La Land” won plenty of awards leading up to the big one — but lost to “Moonlight.” That means “Once Upon a Time” won’t pull it out this year, either. As great as “Parasite” was, it’s still a foreign film and, last year, “Roma” didn’t win, despite success in the best director and foreign film categories. That says “Parasite” will have to settle for the foreign language film prize.
“The Irishman” would be a threat — if it hadn’t been a Netflix release and enjoyed a long run in theaters. Remember, this isn’t best streaming picture. It’s best picture. Given by a group of people who still like seeing their work in theaters. That leaves “1917,” an epic production that checks all the boxes of a true best picture.
The complete list of nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards:
☐ “Ford v Ferrari”
☐ “The Irishman”
☐ “Jojo Rabbit”
☐ “Little Women”
☐ “Marriage Story”
☐ "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”
☐ Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory”
☐ Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood"
☐ Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”
☐ Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
☐ Jonathan Pryce, “The Two Popes”
☐ Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”
☐ Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”
☐ Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”
☐ Charlize Theron, “Bombshell”
☐ Renée Zellweger, “Judy”
Best supporting actor
☐ Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
☐ Anthony Hopkins, “The Two Popes”
☐ Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”
☐ Joe Pesci, “The Irishman”
☐ Al Pacino, “The Irishman”
Best supporting actress
☐ Kathy Bates, “Richard Jewell”
☐ Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”
☐ Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”
☐ Florence Pugh, “Little Women”
☐ Margot Robbie, “Bombshell”
☐ Bong Joon Ho, “Parasite”
☐ Sam Mendes, “1917”
☐ Todd Phillips, “Joker”
☐ Martin Scorsese, “The Irishman”
☐ Quentin Tarantino, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”
☐ “The Irishman,” Steven Zaillian
☐ “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi
☐ “Joker,” Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
☐ “Little Women,” Greta Gerwig
☐ “The Two Popes,” Anthony McCarten
☐ “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson
☐ “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach
☐ “1917,” Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
☐ “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino
☐ “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho and Jin Won Han
☐ “How to Train a Dragon: The Hidden World”
☐ “Toy Story 4”
☐ “I Lost My Body”
☐ “Missing Link”
☐ Hildur Guðnadóttir, “Joker”
☐ Alexandre Desplat, “Little Women”
☐ Randy Newman, “Marriage Story”
☐ Thomas Newman, “1917”
☐ John Williams, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”
☐ “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” “Rocketman” (music by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin)
☐ “I’m Standing With You,” “Breakthrough” (music and lyrics by Diane Warren)
☐ “Into the Unknown,” “Frozen II” (music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez)
☐ “Stand Up,” “Harriet” (music and lyrics by Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo)
☐ “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” “Toy Story 4” (music and lyrics by Randy Newman)
☐ Rodrigo Prieto, “The Irishman”
☐ Lawrence Sher, “Joker”
☐ Jarin Blaschke, “The Lighthouse”
☐ Roger Deakins, “1917”
☐ Robert Richardson, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
☐ “The Irishman”
☐ “Jojo Rabit"
☐ “Little Women”
☐ “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”
Animated short film
☐ “Dcera (Daughter)”
☐ “Hair Love”
☐ “Avengers: Endgame”
☐ “The Irishman”
☐ “The Lion King”
☐ “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”
Live action short film
☐ “Nefta Football Club”
☐ “The Neighbors’ Window”
☐ “A Sister”
Documentary short subject
☐ “In the Absence”
☐ “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)”
☐ “Life Overtakes Me”
☐ “St. Louis Superman”
☐ “Walk Run Cha-Cha”
☐ “American Factory”
☐ “The Cave”
☐ “The Edge of Democracy”
☐ “For Sama”
☐ “Corpus Christi,” Poland
☐ “Honeyland,” North Macdeonia
☐ “Les Miserables,” France
☐ “Pain and Glory,” Spain
☐ “Parasite,” South Korea
☐ “Ford v Ferrari”
☐ “Jojo Rabbit”
☐ “The Irishman"
☐ “The Irishman”
☐ “Jojo Rabbit"
☐ “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”
Makeup and hairstyling
☐ “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”
☐ “Ford v Ferrari,” Don Sylvester
☐ “Joker,” Alan Robert Murray
☐ “1917,” Oliver Tarney and Rachel Tate
☐ “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” Wylie Stateman
☐ “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” Matthew Wood and David Acord
☐ "Ad Astra," Gary Rydstrom, Tom Johnson and Mark Ulano
☐ "Ford v Ferrari," Paul Massey, David Giammarco and Steven A. Morrow
☐ "Joker," Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic and Tod Maitland
☐ "1917," Mark Taylor and Stuart Wilson
☐ "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood" Michael Minkler, Christian P. Minkler and Mark Ulano
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