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.