Mobolaji Olambiwonnu hopes his new film on the killing of Michael Brown will bring healing, dignity, and investment to Black communities affected by police violence.
Where do you find hope? What do you love? What do you find beautiful?
Equipped with these three questions, filmmaker Mobolaji Olambiwonnu packed up his gear and flew from California to Ferguson, Missouri. Just days before, on November 24, 2014, a grand jury had exonerated police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed African American teenager Michael Brown, of any criminal charges.
The city erupted into a series of protests after the August 9 shooting and then again immediately following the non-indictment. Ferguson suddenly became the center of national discussions about police violence against Black communities and the increased militarization of police. But many Ferguson residents weren’t surprised: They felt this clash with police was years in the making. A Department of Justice report published seven months after Michael Brown’s death found what everyone on the ground already knew: that Ferguson police disproportionately targeted African Americans.
Together with high unemployment and poverty rates, instances of police brutality carved out deep-seated tensions between a largely disenfranchised African American community in Ferguson and police. Yet, those same African American communities were being depicted unfairly by the media, said Olambiwonnu, who knew there had to be something more than just anger, fear, and frustration.
Olambiwonnu wanted to see if he could look beyond the surface depictions of violence and tragedy that characterized Ferguson and find within the city a narrative of the events that embraced qualities of hope, love, and beauty. Knowing community members’ own answers to those questions, he said, would allow people to see beyond the limited and all-too-common narratives of racism and division portrayed in the news. Olambiwonnu wanted to tell the story of Ferguson as the story of real human beings, which the documentarian believes is a necessary step to healing and moving forward.
That was the challenge of his latest documentary, Ferguson Rises, the first in a series of films to be produced by the Hope, Love, and Beauty Project, an online platform that produces films and events intended to bring hope, healing, dignity, and investment to African American communities affected by police violence. The Pasadena-based production company—a collaboration of various artists, producers, and directors—started as an Indiegogo campaign in 2014, and after raising enough funds, Olambiwonnu and his team returned to Ferguson and tracked the lives of several residents, from the killing of Michael Brown to the one-year anniversary of his death in August 2015. The film is currently in post-production and is loosely slated to release later this year.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Jaime Alfaro: Can you tell me about the beginning of the project?
Mobolaji Olambiwonnu: We started with the idea of finding hope, love, and beauty in places where people least expect to find it. Our goal is to shoot counternarratives so people can see positive views of communities that are usually maligned in the media.
When Mike Brown was killed and the decision to not indict Darren Wilson occurred, it was at that point I thought, Wow, we need to go to Ferguson, because that’s a place where rioting has broken out and people have an extremely negative view of that community; we’re only seeing one side in the media, and it seems very polarized and very hopeless. This would be a great place to ask those questions—“Where do you find hope? What do you love? What do you find beautiful?”—to cause people to remember that it’s not all lost.
Alfaro: What motivated you to start the project?
Olambiwonnu: What motivated me to do that was being depressed over the state of race relations in America and realizing my son was about two months away from being born, and thinking about what the world would be like for him. I’m older now, so I believe I’m at less risk of negative interactions with the police, but I knew that he was going to be born and he’s going to have to go through some of the similar things that I’ve gone through, hopefully not worse. I just couldn’t picture giving birth to my son and not in some way doing something to change the narrative for him to be able to see what’s possible in the midst of all this, so he doesn’t have to look at a world that’s just simply polarized. There has to be in my imagination something other than what we’re seeing, so I went in search of something other than what we were seeing.
Alfaro: Did you find the narrative you were looking for in Ferguson?
Olambiwonnu: Yes, definitely. We found it. There are very obvious surface ways—people are painting murals over the wood that covers smashed windows—but there was this other element that we couldn’t figure out exactly how it was positive—which were the protests and what seemed to be anger and rancor. Then we spent more time with the protestors, with the community members, and what we discovered was that hope, love, and beauty is not this neatly packaged sweet thing that people expect it to be.
Alfaro: What does it look like?
Olambiwonnu: What we discovered was that, for the people of St. Louis [or] Ferguson, hope, love, and beauty came out of the struggle.
They gained their hope on the streets of Ferguson from standing and protesting, demanding change. That was their hope. Just the mere fact that people can get up every morning in spite of the circumstances that they’re living under and take action and speak up and have a voice—the very fact that they are not broken—is a demonstration of the fact that they have hope. Hope, love, and beauty looked like angry people. It looked like people arguing. It looked like people standing up. But all in all, it looked like people taking action in their lives.
Ironically, it turned out that hope, love, and beauty looked like agitation. It wasn’t something you could necessarily say, “Oh, we won this, we won that”—yes, there was a Department of Justice report, yes, there were other shifts in the council in Ferguson—but it wasn’t just about governmental changes. It was about changes that occurred within people themselves, and that’s what impacts institutions.
Alfaro: It sounds like the name Hope, Love, and Beauty carries with it an acknowledgment of painful emotions. Do you show this as well?
Olambiwonnu: We don’t think you can have hope without going through the pain. We try not to dwell in it, but we have to feel it in order to develop the capacity for true compassion. When we have felt pain, we can see it in others and hopefully help them with theirs.
Alfaro: You found that hope, love, and beauty came out of crisis?
Olambiwonnu: When my producer Tanayi and I spoke to many people in the community, initially they were irritated by the idea of HLB. “Why are you talking about this stuff? These horrible things are happening in our community. We have to stand up and fight. We don’t want to talk about hope, love, and beauty; there’s none of that here.” Then we’d ask them, “Well, what gets you up in the morning?” And they’d say, “My children get me up in the morning. I’m fighting for a better future for them.” We’d ask them, “What are you trying to create?” “We’re trying to make change.”
So you’re trying to create a new vision for the world, something that’s beautiful and helpful and transformative for your children. That sounds like hope, love, and beauty.
Alfaro: So there’s an impact you had in doing the project and another impact the film itself will have?
Olambiwonnu: The documentary is the story of a community. One of the biggest challenges is to have a transformative conversation about hope, love, and beauty, but not shoehorn it into the story itself, but to have it be organic to the lives and the conversations that are taking place in the community.
The goal is not to have forced dialogue about HLB, but witness and look for HLB in the midst of what we see in the everyday lives of these members of the community.
Alfaro: Do you think Ferguson has begun to heal from this?
Olambiwonnu: We definitely feel the process of healing has begun in Ferguson, but it’s an ongoing process. In watching people, we’ve noticed that bonds have become tighter between people, which we think is really the first indication of healing from trauma.
Rather than attempting to have positive action come from anger or come from a feeling of a need for retribution, our theory and belief is that if we actually start to have these kinds of conversations about hope, love, and beauty, then action can come from that space and therefore be more transformative and much more impactful.
Alfaro: Can you talk more about shared connections?
Olambiwonnu: As a team with a background in conflict resolution as well as film, what we learned from conflict resolution is that you always start with what people have in common. And if we start to see what we have in common, then we can start to have a conversation about what we don't have in common. But it’s coming from of a place of “I know you.”
Now I see you as more than just the opposition, or more than just someone who is narrow-minded and doesn’t get the point. I see you as a full-fledged human being, and so far I think what people love about this film when we’ve shown our rough cuts is that they feel that all the characters are human beings. Because we were looking for their humanity, we were able to find it.
Alfaro: Does this story go beyond a single city?
Olambiwonnu: They have a saying on the ground: “Ferguson is everywhere.” The goal is to make a documentary about Ferguson and to talk about how Ferguson is representative of who we all are—representative of communities that we all live in.
People may want to limit the story of Ferguson to police brutality, but it’s so much broader than that. It is all that is good and all that is bad about us. The goal is to make the audience aware of what happened in Ferguson and have them say, “This could be my town, and maybe it is my town; maybe I just don’t know it.” It might cause them to become a little more interested in their town, a little more interested in the people, in the impact that these issues might have on people in their community.
Alfaro: Do you think we’re ready to see each other’s humanity in this way?
Olambiwonnu: We’re at a critical juncture as a culture and as a planet, where if we don’t see each other’s humanity, we will continue to descend into simple narratives that cost people their lives. Over 600 people have died so far this year at the hands of police and eight police officers have died in retaliation. So at what point is it going to be enough deaths?
We’re at a point where people are beginning to tell their story and tell their truths. I think we’re reaching a place where we’re able to access information that allows us to understand other people and to relate to their pain and their struggle. Then it just becomes a choice: Are we going to choose not to see it?
It’ll be there for us to see in a much more in-your-face way. I think that’s the beauty of our time.