Bruce Franks, Jr., a St. Louis native didn't set out to be a superhero, but a series of life events changed the course of his trajectory from underground battle rapper to the state legislature in the Missouri State House of Representatives. He was dubbed "Superman" by his St. Louis constituents, in part, because he was successfully able to get a state law passed that deemed youth violence a public health emergency. Unfortunately, as poetic as the story sounds, his life has not always had such a rhythmic flow.
Gun violence has paralyzed much of his 34 years of life. When Franks was just 6 years old, he witnessed his older brother Christopher Harris get shot and killed while playing outside. His brother was only nine at the time. On August 9, 2014, as he was setting up a party for his son, who was turning one, tragedy came knocking in his city in the form of Michael Brown. The unarmed Black teenager was shot and killed by a police officer and the shooting ignited a different fight in Franks.
In 2016, two years after the killing of Brown, Franks was sworn into office as a State Representative where he held the office until 2019. That year, his best friend, Sylvester Hamilton, and then his godson, Gerrian Green, were both killed by gun violence in St. Louis. It sent him over the edge and he abruptly resigned from office citing mental health concerns.
Albeit short, Franks admits that his time in office and the trauma he has experienced growing up have indeed taken its toll leading him to thoughts of suicide. What stopped him was knowing he could still use his platform in other ways to right the countless wrongs of injustice centered on people of color.
Since then, Franks has made his way to the Academy Awards earlier this year. He was invited along with the filmmakers behind the St. Louis Superman, an MTV short documentary (directed and produced by Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan) about his rise from battle rapper to politician and his quest to save his city still struggling with gun violence. The film received a nomination for Best Documentary Short.
Franks spoke with BET.com about the documentary, the stigma Black men face every day regarding mental health, and how he continues to use his Superman cape for good.
BET.com: There is roughly a 25-year difference between the death of your brother and the death of Michael Brown. Was running for office embedded in you as a way to try and fight gun violence?
Bruce Franks, Jr: Not initially because when my brother was killed in 1991 when I was 6 years old. Although I still feel that and remember that to this day, in my mind, I didn't know how to fight that; I didn't know how to fight gun violence. I didn't know how to fight against police brutality or the things we saw each and every day.
Then when Michael Brown was killed, it hit me like a Mac truck and that's when I hit the streets. When I did that more and more of those deaths kept happening and it started to make sense that outside of what we were doing taking to the streets, the community was saying that we needed new representation and who better than somebody from the community to try and change policy and the challenges the community faced.
BET.com: During your time in office you faced mental health challenges that you speak very openly about. Can you share with our readers your experiences?
Bruce Franks, Jr: To keep it real, we grow up and our parents and grandparents would say, ‘only white people go to a therapist. Only white people go get help. You are not crazy. We will pray for you, keep going, and that's that.’ When you have gone through all of these things that you have gone through, gun violence, and maybe your parents leaving, that's trauma. I used to feel depressed as a kid and I remember adults telling me that I was too young to be depressed. I lost my brother at 6-years-old, what do you mean?
This stigma that Black people, especially Black men shouldn't get help is bad, and now that I have been through treatment and realized that I suffer from PTSD and severe anxiety and survivor's guilt. My message is that it is okay not to be okay. It's okay to cry and it's okay to go seek help. I am very open about mental health because if there is someone watching that may be worried about seeking help, I want them to know that someone like me could show that getting help only makes you better.
BET.com: Since the death of Michael Brown there have been more killings of unarmed Black people, one of the latest being Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. You've been through this before. What advice do you have for the families?
Bruce Franks, Jr: If I was to say anything to the families it would be to say that I love them. I don't know what to say about how to fight or what to fight because I think that falls upon the individual on the way that they seek justice. For me ,it just seemed like all of this was becoming too normal. How did it become so normal for our people to die? It was normal for us to hold candlelight vigils in the hood and then go to the funeral. It got to the point where I was doing it so much I thought it wasn't affecting me until that one time I woke up crying and it was the start of me realizing that I wasn't taking care of my mental health.
BET.com: You resigned from office back in 2019 and you were quoted as saying that mental health factors were the reason. Could you elaborate?
Bruce Franks, Jr: I'll never forget the series of events that led up to my resignation. August 20, 2018, my best friend Sylvester Hamilton was killed, and a month and a half later, my godson was killed at 16-years-old and I remember being in the darkest place that I've been. I've spent so much time helping folks and trying to provide resources for people that I don't know, and I love doing it but I wasn't doing that for people that are the closest to me. Two people closest to me died while I'm saving others and that put me in a very dark place.
I remember sitting in my living room and I had a loaded gun in front of me and a bottle of promethazine. In my head, I was better off not being here. At that moment I received a text from one of the film directors wanting to check on me and show me the first draft of the documentary and the first image I saw was me with my son and I snapped back to reality. I knew that I needed to resign and deal with my own trauma. I can't heal from trauma when I'm in the epicenter of it. Politics and all the work I was doing and the funerals were bringing the trauma directly to me. It was hard to resign, but it was the best decision that I have made.
BET.com: The people who elected you to office coined you "St. Louis Superman." You have moved away from the city after resigning office but curious minds want to know are you still wear your cape?
Bruce Franks, Jr: I love my city, but my city took a lot out of me. Not the people, but those systems put in place that have kept our people down and oppressed. I'm going to continue fighting but I had to get better to be able to fight. Now, I can go in and leave when I need to leave but make sure I keep that revolving door open. One of the most important aspects of being Superman, being a superhero is knowing yeah you've got that power, but also controlling when do you dish it out and when you pull it back in while making sure that it is always invested and rooted in the people.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or mentally, speak to a counselor at the National Suicide Prevention by dialing 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to get the help you need.
Kelsey Minor is a two-time Emmy winning journalist based in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @theKELSEYminor