By Ade D. Adeniji
Ferguson Rises, a documentary by filmmaker Mobolaji Olambiwonnu, brings us back to the days before the masks and the quarantining, the summer of protests and the images of a band of intruders in the halls of Congress. It’s August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominantly-Black community near St. Louis. Here, 18-year old Michael Brown Jr. was shot dead by a police officer named Darren Wilson, and left in the streets for several hours.
The film walks us through the familiar, early timeline of the shooting heard around the world. But then Ferguson Rises chronicles the many months and years of the shooting’s aftermath. The unseen images after most of the news crews went home and the one small midwestern town that was left behind. At the center of this community is patriarch Michael Brown Sr., who deals with grief and righteous anger over the death of his son, but then also somehow finds meaning and purpose as a leader in his community and far beyond.
Ferguson Rises is Olambiwonnu’s feature directorial debut. A graduate of UCLA and American Film Institute, Olambiwonnu is the recipient of several awards, including the prestigious Directors Guild of America Student Award. Among the film’s producers is actor David Oyelowo and award-winning producer Gigi Pritzker.
“The documentary exudes a melancholy air, benefiting from a measured, years-later perspective on these events, which allows Olambiwonnu’s subjects to ponder the impact Brown’s death has had on this community and society at large,” writes senior critic Tim Grierson of Screendaily.
Independent Lens recently caught up with Olambiwonnu and Brown Sr. over Zoom. Michael made time for us even while celebrating a son’s birthday party. We talked about the process of collaborating on the making of the film, and how it resonates during an era where the Movement for Black Lives is now all the more potent. Below are excerpts from that interview, edited for length and clarity.
Mobolaji, could you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and why you were drawn to this important story of Ferguson and Michael Brown Jr.?
Mobolaji Olambiwonnu: I think we all know, as Black people, that when you see something happen to one Black person, particularly if it has a tinge of racism, or a tinge of anything related to the police, we see ourselves, right? So it was impossible for me to see Michael Brown Jr. on the ground and not see myself, not see my son, not see my family members.
That initial moment, the photographs, the images, were really devastating, for one, and were really the thing that inspired me to say: I have to do something. I have to use whatever talent I have to tell a story that provides the world with something other than just what the media gives us.
I also was inspired to take this journey because I have a son, and my wife was seven months pregnant with him at the time, when we started in 2014. My son is almost seven years old now. And I felt like at some point in his life, when he reaches his teenage years or whatever it is, he’s going to ask me, what did I do at this important moment in history?
Why did you decide that a documentary film was the best avenue to tell this story?
Mobolaji: I don’t think it was a fully conscious choice, to be frank. I think we started out with the idea of a short, and we just got so many gripping interviews and talked to so many powerful people that it just kept building on itself. And then it occurred to me at some point: why should this be a short film, when there’s so much of a story to tell, and there’s so many people that have been impacted by Michael Brown Jr.?
Short films don’t get the level of attention that they need, unfortunately, as brilliant as many of them are. So the only way to really get a heightened level of attention is to tell a feature-length story. Narrative would be great too, but at the time, in 2014, everything was still unfolding, and we didn’t know what the narrative was. But something was going on that we had to capture in real time. We had to be there to talk to people and get as much of it as possible.
Michael, why did you entrust Mobolaji and his team to tell this important story?
Michael Brown Sr.: In the beginning, I was worried, because I was still going through the emotions, and not really listening to what people were saying. Come to find out, I had kind of forgotten that I had even agreed. After some of the anger started settling a little bit, I was able to receive a lot of people that came into my life.
It was still tough—Mobolaji will tell you—trying to get me to focus. Some mornings I ain’t want to get up because of the stress. It definitely was a process over the years, to make this happen. The end result is that we were able to accomplish together and make this thing happen, like it needed to be.
Sadly, the feelings are still there as far as the pain, but I’m able to operate in a different sense, on helping put the narrative where it needs to be.
And Mobolaji, how did you go about getting the family to really buy into your vision and your stewardship of the story?
Mobolaji: It was sort of divine intervention, you might say, because I was trying to reach the family and we couldn’t get in touch with them because everything was going on. There was so much press, and hounding, and we just couldn’t get in touch with anybody. We were in Ferguson filming and ended up at the local fish fry place. While we were eating our fried fish, in walked Michael and Cal [Michael Brown Jr.’s stepmother]. I jumped up out of my seat and I went to go talk to them. This is how we got that first interview set up.
And then from that first interview, we got a second one, and began to build a relationship. So I have to thank the fried fish.
What about the many other cast of characters you talked to on the ground? It just seems like you were able to pull in such a range of people from different stations and perspectives. How did you go about building that trust and momentum?
Mobolaji: Yeah, we talked to about 110 people. Of course, the movie only has a fraction of those. But it was just trying to build trust. I don’t even fully know how it worked. We’re grateful we were able to run into people. We ran into Michael’s cousin and a friend at McDonald’s. So a lot of it just happened where we just were in the right place at the right time.
Someone would say, “Hey, I know this person, Hey, you should talk to this person.” And it just led us to another person, and to another person, until eventually we wound up with the people that we have in the documentary. But it was really this organic sort of grassroots process, where you had to be there and just meet people and just be on the streets for hours.
And how’d you go about developing that structure and that pacing, in terms of the interviews, the live news clips, and so on?
Mobolaji: Right. I mean, that structure was very, very difficult to develop. But the more that we got to know Michael, the more that we got to know the family, I knew that I wanted that to be a strong throughline throughout the movie. And I had to fight with a lot of people. Sometimes they weren’t seeing it, even my editors. So I had to bring out my old editing skills. I hadn’t edited video in probably 15 years before this. Then the great editors on the team were able to pick up from there.
Initially, we were going back and forth for five years and had a lot of different dates and timelines that were confusing. We ultimately just let it all flow as one collective, emotional year because I guess the emotion was the same in a lot of ways.
We went by emotion and emotional structure because the grief that the families feel is real. It was real in 2014. It is real in 2021. I don’t think that you ever stop grieving and feeling that level of grief.
What’s the emotional truth? What’s the family feeling? What are the members of the city feeling? And what is the lesson that we can get from all this?
And the key thing of that, and as Michael said himself, how do you find purpose in your pain? I mean, I witnessed that with him. What do you do with all this? What’s the example for young Black men who are on the streets, who are dealing with lots of pain, lots of tragedy, loss of friends, whatever it is?
There are many choices they have—they can go negative or they can go positive. And Michael, I think, shows people you can take that anger, you can take that frustration, you can take that pain and turn it into something that actually builds community, that helps other people. Through helping other people, you help yourself heal.
This is for both of you guys. Who do you hope the film Ferguson Rises impacts the most?
Michael: Some people watching television had a bad feeling as far as Mike robbing the store and all the stuff said from the media point of view. Right? Some people get that first look and they just keep their mindset. No matter if the truth comes out later, they don’t even want to hear it.
For me, to the people that had their mind made up, now they have a second chance to change their feelings on what happened that day and what’s happening now. A family was disrespected, too, a father and a mother. They were throwing shade on us so bad to where it tried to make it look like Mike was a bad kid. So this helps give character on my side, to the public, defending my end of being his father and being in his life.
People get to see a real family. Those things are not displayed too much on television. You really don’t see it too much in homes these days because a lot of homes are just broken.
We understand that some things just don’t work. But just to know that there are fathers out here that care about their children. In the home or outside the home, we care about them. Just because it didn’t work out with their mate, that doesn’t mean we don’t love you.
[I] definitely want the public to know that a father hurts, too. He has pain. We were always taught to just take it, and grow, and be able to move on with that, with that pain, right? In a different type of way. People need to see that, that we definitely do hurt. We can’t always hide it. It needs to be shown in a light, where fathers are suffering through traumatic things that are happening in their life, and when they’re in a place where they want to express it, that’s good for them.
Mobolaji: There’s always this story about the Black father, and Black fathers being absent, and Black fathers being useless, and, basically, that Black women are the ones that hold the community together. And I felt like, while that is true in some cases—certainly, through slavery, they were the only ones who were around because the men were getting sold off or whatever else—we need a narrative that’s a bit more balanced.
Like Michael said, we need to show that Black men love their children, that Black men can be present, that Black men do care, that Black men do have feelings, do have emotions, do have connections to their children, and that Black men essentially are human beings.
I think a lot of people will identify with Mike and identify with what he’s gone through because they are familiar and they know that experience. They know what has happened to them, either through police experiences or through just being a man growing up in a working-class community. People can identify.
But just because that’s a Black person does not mean that couldn’t be your son. You have to be able to see Black people as part of your family. We can’t operate or move forward as a society or a culture if we don’t begin to see each other as human beings. It’s not going to work. And I want people to be left with that message, that we all have to work together and make it work for all of us.
What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers? And how did the likes of David Oyelowo get involved with the film?
Mobolaji: I think my advice would be to figure out a way to start it yourself. At least get the ball rolling. Rather than shooting a lot that looks bad, shoot a little that looks good. And with whatever you shoot or create, you can then use that to raise more money and shoot more. Commit to what you can afford and make sure it looks as good as possible so you can get other people involved based on that.
So with film, I started everything initially out of my own pocket for myself, by myself, and then people came on board, sometimes for a season, sometimes for the entirety of the project. But it took me getting those steps and taking those first steps by myself and having faith in myself, even when I was unsure, and pushing forward no matter what. And then eventually, other people said, “Hey, this guy is still doing it? He’s still pushing forward? He’s done what? Okay, I’ll help.”
Like I said, this whole thing has been a series of miracles. This has been a seven-year process, but there was a two-year period where we had no money, and where I was depressed. My son was 2 years old, and I’m walking with this baby around my neighborhood thinking, “What am I going to do? How am I going to finish this movie? Maybe I made a mistake.”
As all that was sort of going through my head, I ran into another dad who was walking around our neighborhood in Los Angeles with his kid. So we started talking and he ended up sharing the film with T.J. Martin, the 2011 Oscar winner for his documentary Undefeated. Martin loved the film and wanted to help.
From there, he called David Oyelowo, who had a first-look deal with Gigi Pritzker, of the billionaire Chicago Pritzker family. So it was just one miracle after another. And of course, I have to acknowledge our initial investor, who’s a longtime friend of mine, Sandra Evers-Manly, who created the Black Hollywood Entertainment Resource Center.
What are you listening to these days to keep you calm and centered?
Michael: It varies. Church music. You’ve got Kirk Franklin. You’ve got Jill Scott. I got a lot of them. I could keep going. But yeah, they keep me calm. Dance music, rap music, yeah, that does definitely activate [me]. Right? I got The Whispers on there, too. I’ve got Temptations. It’s just a rotation of stuff. I couldn’t tell you a favorite. I can just let you know what lane I’m in when I’m trying to relax and be calm and just woosah. You know?
Mobolaji: Yeah, he’s right. I’ve got to listen to calming music, too.
Mobolaji: I did want to say one last thing, which I think is important. When I was 19, I was arrested and framed by the police, for a crime that I didn’t commit, in a small town in New Jersey. So when I saw Michael Brown Jr. on the ground, I saw myself.
But when my record got expunged and my lawyers got me out of harm’s way, one of the lawyers turned to me and he said, “You can make this about the handful of people that tried to destroy your life or you could make this about the hundred or so people that came to your rescue. It’s up to you.” And I got mad at him for saying that. Remember, I was 19.
But years later when I was on the streets of Ferguson, I looked at that crowd of police officers on one side, and there were maybe 100 police officers or something like that. I turned behind me and I looked at the crowd of thousands and thousands of people behind me. It was that moment I realized what that lawyer meant. “We can make it about those hundred or so police officers that are standing in front of us, or we can turn around and make it about the thousands of people who were behind us.”
Michael, on his foundation that supports other families who have lost loved ones due to police brutality or community violence: [I’m] still communicating with these families, who are just stuck to the floor. These families really need help. This doc will definitely help them in different types of ways, moving forward, with what to do. A lot of people have antennas go straight up when they hear a person that’s been affected by so much and are able to have a voice, but people don’t know that [my] voice came from Mobolaji. The process in him helping me get my voice out there—we helped each other. I guess we’re both building a legacy.
Ade D. Adeniji is a Staff Writer for Inside Philanthropy and an approved Rotten Tomatoes critic. He’s also written for outlets CBS News, WIRED, Newsweek, Mic, and The Rumpus, and blogs about film, television, and the majestic NBA on his own website, adeadeniji.com.
“A Father Hurts Too”: In Conversation with Michael Brown Sr and the Filmmaker of Ferguson Rises | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Independent Lens for www.pbs.org