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Hip-hop artist and New Orleans native Big Freedia estimates she has personally known 60 to 70 individuals killed by gun violence. One of them is her younger brother, Adam Ross, who was slain in 2018. Police have yet to make any arrests, but, Freedia recalls, “a few people” reached out after his murder to offer retaliation. She refused; there’s been enough death in her life.
The title of the new documentary Freedia Got a Gun feels wrong, even if its allusion to a (mostly forgotten) anti-war novel and film adaptation implies that what we need is an immediate battle against the scourge of gun violence. The approach that Freedia advocates for isn’t more combat, but care: mediation among armed teenage boys and young men by trained “peacekeepers,” better schools and social services and a reimagining of masculinity and strength.
Until the film’s debut at this year’s virtual AFI Docs festival, much of the press around Big Freedia, even with her brother’s much publicized death, has been celebratory, not somber. A star and ambassador of New Orleans-born bounce music, Freedia has enjoyed a steady rise, with samplings by Beyoncé and Drake, a collaboration with Kesha, appearances on HBO’s Treme and her own six-season reality series on Fuse called Big Freedia Bounces Back (formerly Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce). Born Freddie Ross and self-anointed the Queen Diva on stage, Freedia accomplished all this as a Black, gender-nonconforming performer. (Freedia identifies as a gay man, but her pronouns are fluid with a reported preference for she/her.)
Directed by Chris McKim (Out of Iraq), the documentary is most compelling as a tour of New Orleans’ struggling Black communities, then and now, with Freedia as a native guide. Gun violence seems to impact Black boys at younger ages than when she was a “fat sissy” growing up in the projects. Freedia visits a local middle school, where vice principal Ashonta Wyatt laments that many of her students have begun carrying guns for protection. In one of Wyatt’s many powerful statements, she cries, “Our babies are being slaughtered by our babies.”
Big-picture views are offered by New York Times columnist and executive producer Charles M. Blow, who derides the media for only caring about gun violence “when it’s a mass shooting.” (Blow’s staid blue button-down shirt and brown pants provide a wonderful contrast to the satin ochre blouse, leopard-print beret, bejeweled nails and chunky gold jewelry that Freedia dons walking next to him.) But the film thankfully focuses on New Orleans, where 92% of homicide victims are Black, and on Louisiana, where 1 out of 100 people are behind bars. Freedia’s profound love for — and deep disappointment in — her hometown is palpable through the screen.
Freedia is such a charismatic guide — and the explanations for gun violence so familiar — that the documentary loses steam whenever she’s off-screen for too long. McKim does introduce several other poignant figures, like 14-year-old Devin Walker, who was shot at by a rival he can’t seem to forgive, and reformed ex-con Calvin Pep, who’s been exactly where Devin is now and is desperate to help the teen find a non-violent resolution. Both Pep and Freedia speak of the mindset that leads to such cycles of violence as a kind of mental prison, and it would have been fascinating to know if Freedia’s queerness led her to question traditional masculine roles more fully or earlier in life than her brother, whose killing she says she “never not expected.”
But the film finds its momentum again whenever it spotlights local specificity. Freedia shares her harrowing experience during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and the talking heads insightfully suggest that one of the reasons gun violence may affect young New Orleanians more today is the post-Katrina demolition of low-income housing all over the city destroyed Black communities while exacerbating tensions among the displaced. The tragedies within the city’s borders keep mounting, but this ultimately hopeful portrait of New Orleans suggests the solutions may be found within it, too.
Venue: AFI Docs 2020 (virtual)
Production company: World of Wonder
Director: Chris McKim
Producers: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, Chris McKim
Executive producer: Charles M. Blow
Directors of photography: Gabriel Bienczycki, Bruno Doria
Editors: Francy Kachler, Chris Callister
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