Michael Brown Sr., father of Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, Mo. by a police officer at age 18, has appeared in his fair share of documentaries and recorded countless interviews since his son’s death in 2014. But there was something about “Ferguson Rises,” filmmaker Mobolaji Olambiwonnu’s take on the Brown family’s story, that felt different.
“It’s giving us fathers a voice,” Brown tells Variety, joined by Olambiwonnu and the film’s producer David Oyelowo to discuss the new doc. “The media runs right to the woman — it’s okay, that’s what they do — [fathers are] supposed to be the strength and take it, take it, take, it. But we hurt, too.”
That’s why Brown says he is honored to be at the center of this new narrative about his son’s life, his death and how the events of Aug. 9, 2014 impacted the citizens of Ferguson, before the Black Lives Matter movement grabbed the attention of people across the country and around the world.
“My intention, particularly with the integration of Michael Brown Sr. into the story, was that we have to understand that Black men feel, that Black men have emotions, that Black men are impacted by things in the same way that we all are,” Olambiwonnu says of the doc, which debuted Tuesday at Tribeca and is part of the film festival’s Juneteenth lineup.
“Unfortunately, cinema has not done a very good job of depicting a three-dimensional Black male,” he continues. “So my intention was to make a film that spoke to that humanity, and by extension, spoke to the humanity of all the residents.”
Finding a way to humanize this Black son, his Black father and, as a result, Black men in general was a big part of the reason Oyelowo signed on to produce the film under he and his wife Jessica’s Yoruba Saxon Productions banner. Gigi Pritzker serves as executive producer on the documentary.
“It’s very rare to see a Black father at the center of his pain and progress through the circumstances that so many have found themselves in,” Oyelowo says. “I’m really, really proud of the film, and it’s a massive honor for us to be part of telling a story that I think needed to be told in its totality, in a more comprehensive way, than was able to be told, six or seven years ago.”
The award-winning actor and producer was already well-aware of the Browns’ story. In fact, Oyelowo had just wrapped filming Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” in which he played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the weeks before Brown was killed, and he explains that the young man’s death had a profound impact on the entire production.
“We had just made this film about the desperate fight for voting rights and the marginalization, subjugation, brutalization and victimization of Black people historically in America,” Oyelowo says. “We thought we were making a history piece that of course shines a light on today, but we wrapped on July 3 and Michael Brown Jr. was murdered on August 9 — a murder very akin to what we saw with Jimmie Lee Jackson in the film. We had just gone through this process of showing what to be Black in America has been historically, and here we were again.”
Over the next few months, Oyelowo recalls the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rollout for “Selma” moving along parallel tracks, as the actors and filmmakers spoke out in support of Black people and against racial injustice while on the film’s press tour. The worlds fully intersected when Olambiwonnu came calling with the documentary, which was in its earliest stages, and Oyelowo was eager to help shape the film’s story.
“This journey I had been through as an actor, as a man, and as someone who likes to think of themselves as an activist also,” he says of the offer. “It just felt like this was something, that I not only couldn’t escape — and I didn’t particularly want to escape — but somehow, there is a divine calling to be a part of continuing to showcase this injustice.”
Olambiwonnu came to make the documentary under similar circumstances, saying he felt called to go to Ferguson shortly after seeing the news of Brown’s death, despite knowing no one in the area.
“My wife was seven months pregnant at the time with our son, who is now six-and-a-half years old, so that shows you how long we’ve been working on the film,” the filmmaker explains. “Unfortunately, it really struck a chord with me because I was arrested and framed by the police when I was 19. And as an African who came to this country and was unaware of a lot of the dynamics that took place, my big awakening happened then.”
“Even though I was able to get those charges expunged from my record, it left an indelible mark on me,” he continues, explaining that it was the moment when he realized the world looked at him as African American and all of the stigma and stereotype that have come with that designation. “I couldn’t help but think when Michael Brown was killed at 18, that that could have happened to me, if my situation had turned in the wrong direction, if my encounter with police had gone wrong.”
So, as a father-to-be, Olambiwonnu decided to paint a new narrative for his son about what the future could look like for Black people.
“I want him to understand that you can find hope, love and beauty in the midst of tragedy. That you can find purpose in your pain,” he says. “I literally just grabbed the camera with a friend of mine, cinematographer Jerry Henry, and we just we flew out as soon as possible, as soon as my wife gave permission.”
Once the men had boots on the ground, Olambiwonnu began the process of setting up interviews with Ferguson’s citizens. One of his earliest calls was to Brown’s foundation, but the attempts to reach the Brown family for an interview kept coming up dry. Instead, the two men met by chance at a local fish fry restaurant.
“The beginning of our relationship was around fried fish,” Olambiwonnu laughs. “I jumped up out of my seat, ran up to and spoke to them, and they gave me permission to get that first interview. That led to all the other subsequent interviews and spending time with them over the years. It was a great pleasure and an honor to spend time with Mike.”
The documentarian gets choked up as he recalls what it was like filming with the Browns. “I get really emotionally moved because I just can’t imagine what what the family has gone through,” he explains, near tears. “And for them, to say, ‘Hey, you can spend time with us. You can come inside our house.’ That they let me film them in the midst of all that, was really moving to me and a precious gift. It’s something that I don’t take lightly.”
For the doc, Olambiwonnu’s cameras followed Brown and his family home, where the father talks about his son, and also bring him back to the site where his son was killed.
“I really don’t go to ground zero unless it’s once a year to commemorate on Aug. 9,” Brown says of the scene. “I get my peace at the grave. I go where don’t nobody go. I sit at the grave when I get a peace of mind with him. I’m able to talk, get out what I want to say on a personal level towards him.”
Oyelowo emphasizes why scenes like those are so important to include in the narrative — it’s the unfortunate power of imagery to counteract the dehumanizing narratives about Black people that are so pervasive in media.
“The only thing that seems to move the needle is a consistent insistence that people take another look and an actual insight into our humanity,” he explains. “And the only way I can do that is on the Selma bridge, for Dr. King and his cohorts to orchestrate cameras being there at the ready to see the brutalization of us as Black people. For the cameras to happen to be on when George Floyd is being murdered. That’s the point beyond which our humanity is suddenly in your face enough that you feel the need to move. Our doing of this documentary is another attempt at the same thing.”
“It unfortunately takes us being seen to be brutalized,” he continues. “It takes a moment where a person who doesn’t look like us, who isn’t from where we’re from, and doesn’t have the debilitating history that we have had to endure having to momentarily be in our shoes because they see a father — not just a Black man, but a father — dealing with the loss of his son. They see a grown man being murdered slowly by an indignant, defiant white policeman who casually has his knee on his neck.”
Because the examples of dehumanization of Black people are so pervasive, Oyelowo explains, there’s a domino effect. And that’s not including America’s history of demonizing Black people.
“If you don’t see us being murdered, or tortured, or lynched, or marginalized or brutalized, the thing you get instead is us being criminalized,” he explains. “The first thing that happens after Mike Brown Jr. is murdered is to criminalize him. The first thing that happens when George Floyd is murdered is to criminalize him. So the thing we have to consistently do is humanize ourselves.”
“Humanizing ourselves is what got the Voting Rights Act passed soon after the incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” he goes on. “Humanizing ourselves through those nine plus minutes of seeing George Floyd murdered is what got Derek Chauvin convicted. It took that video and a global pandemic where the Earth is brought to its knees — the entire globe — for us to see justice in the kind of case where we never see justice. And Mike Brown, Jr. hasn’t had justice as it pertains to how he was murdered.”
From his perspective, Brown feels it’s important to reflect back on the memories of his son, whether for the documentary or by wearing his old clothes.
“I have learned how to accept [the memories], instead of being so mad that they have ended. But there’s so many memories to where I can’t run out, so I’ll be all right til my death,” he explains. “He changed the world, and I’m fighting for him still. His purpose and his legacy means a lot to this family. I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do as a father.”
In 2014, Brown established the Michael Brown Chosen for Change Foundation, which is featured in a particularly powerful scene of the documentary as other parents of children killed in incidents of racial violence gather to honor their fallen family members.
“It’s sadly how we met. But just to be united, or be around people that understand, is always a good feeling,” Brown explains. “They say I help them, they just don’t know they’ve helped me. Because a lot of people think that I’m okay. I guess that’s just how I come off.”
He adds: “But I tell them all the time, it’s just important for the world to see us as a unit, us still standing together, us still standing strong with our head up as we still fight for justice for our children.”
It’s that resilience that not only inspired Olambiwonnu while making the film, but that the director says is key to America learning how to move towards real societal progress.
“I think the humanity of America rests with with Black people. America has an opportunity to really wake up to itself by looking at the pain and suffering of Black people,” he explains. “What America has to learn and needs to study is that is the resilience of Black people. In spite of all this Black people have still managed to rise up and do great things.”
“We just had the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre — Black people built something incredible 100 years ago, and it was destroyed, and we see that over and over again, building and destroying, but we keep building,” he continues. “I think if people really looked at Black people as human beings, they would say, ‘Wow, what an impressive group of people, to have gone through all that, and still be able to rise, to build, to pray, to believe and still be able to have faith. That’s how America needs to look at Black people, instead of as criminals or as people that don’t deserve to be in this country.”
More than anything though, the filmmaker hopes that audiences will understand the larger message he hopes to tell through the microcosm of Ferguson, as we all reevaluate our commitment to creating a better world moving forward.
“We have an opportunity here to make history, to stand up and transform the way in which we see Black people, and to notice that there are people all over the world who are standing with us,” Olambiwonnu says. “That that solidarity extends beyond the boundaries of race, that there are people who understand that that human beings deserve dignity, deserve rights and deserve to be to be treated accordingly. It was about really demonstrating that for my son and other people’s children.”