Early in Freedia Got a Gun, the new documentary about gun violence in New Orleans and bounce star Big Freedia’s activism surrounding the issue, the camera settles on a 14-year-old boy drumming on Bourbon Street. Devin Walker is wearing a polo emblazoned with his yellow charter school logo and tapping drumsticks on an upended gray bucket. In a muggy neon-lit evening, he fades into the background of the French Quarter, just one of many teens drumming on the street, creating beats for boozed-up tourists to add to their Instagram Stories.
The clip is a wrenching juxtaposition with Walker’s first appearance in the film. Minutes earlier, he sits in a nondescript classroom at SciTech Academy surrounded by about a dozen other sixth- and seventh-graders. The school’s assistant principal, Ashonta Wyatt, sits at the front of the room, joined by Freedia, and the pair listen as the children relay stories of their intimate experiences with gun violence: one of their mothers shot in the front yard of a home, guns pulled on groups of friends in their neighborhood. Walker describes, with the same even-keeled precision with which he drums, watching his father die of a gunshot wound when he was 7 years old.
In those two shots lies the duality of the city: New Orleans can be magical, a place to sip a lukewarm, cheap beer and dance to a pared-down drum beat under centuries-old wrought-iron balconies. But it is also deeply inequitable, a city where the life expectancy between residents of two ZIP codes less than 5 miles apart can differ by 25 years, even before COVID-19 swept through the Black community.
The documentary begins by centering on the youngest generation, including Devin, who throughout the film grapples with both his rising list of charges for possession of a firearm, grand theft auto, and other offenses, and his desire to extract himself from a cycle of gun violence. Big Freedia details her personal experiences, including the shooting death of her brother in January 2018. Interviews with journalist and executive producer Charles Blow, as well as community members, the New Orleans Peacekeepers, Walker and his family, and Wyatt flesh out the rest of the story, which delves into trauma in the community, the impact of Hurricane Katrina, mass incarceration, and the way these factors play into gun violence, an issue now deemed an epidemic and public-health concern.
“They want to say that there’s something broken about Blackness,” Blow says early in the film. “But this is how human beings behave when they’re hurting. … We have allowed the Black community to be abused to such a degree they’re in a constant state of trauma, and they’re human beings—they’re responding to trauma. Society has to take responsibility.”
In that way, the film is eerily prescient. It was meant to be released in early April at the Tribeca Film Festival, but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and released this past Saturday through AFI Docs on the heels of a month of protests that brought thousands to the streets after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
White supremacy, the resultant systemic racism, and its impacts on everything from policing and education to life expectancy and media representation have perhaps never been more topical. But they’ve been determining factors in the lives of Black children like Devin for generations.
“It’s almost like the timing, it helps put attention on the film, but it’s almost an illusion,” says Chris McKim, the director and one of the film’s producers.
“If the film had premiered as planned in April, it wouldn’t have this background, this national story propelling eyes onto the project, but at the same time all these things would have been true. So it kind of feels like it’s really timely, and yet, maybe that’s kind of the problem.”
As an educational consultant and activist, Ashonta Wyatt has dedicated her career to advocating for her community and for children in New Orleans schools, in which an estimated 70 percent of second-graders are not reading at grade level. She grew up in the Fischer Projects, a housing project on the West Bank of New Orleans known for high levels of poverty and crime and, in the ’80s, rampant police brutality. She has seen people murdered, she has known people murdered, and in the documentary, as she does in her everyday life, she fights for the rights of Black students who, she says, are constantly given less and asked for more because of a system built on and sustained by racism. She spends time outside the schools protesting and speaking, sometimes at four or five vigils or funerals a month.
“In my 36 years, I can tell you I have done hundreds and hundreds of these things,” she tells the crowd in one scene, where she speaks at a vigil for a 38-year-old man killed in April 2018. “I’m waiting for y’all to raise the white flag,” she continues, as the crowd releases a plume of gold, white, and silver balloons, “so we can stop putting beautiful Black men in the ground.”
Wyatt commands that crowd with the grace of a natural organizer. When she speaks, people listen. I know this personally, because the day that the scene in SciTech was filmed, I was teaching sixth-grade English in a classroom one floor above; Wyatt was my assistant principal. I remember her walking through the halls to pick up the students who would speak with Freedia; if we actually gathered every child who had been affected by gun violence, most classrooms would be less than half full, if that. Six children speak in that scene, and I taught four of them, including Devin, as well as several other students pictured, and their siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews.
I called Wyatt after I finished watching the film to talk about how the documentary could play a role in the current moment: Social media feeds are now swarmed with white people sharing anti-racist resources and suddenly grappling with their role in a system that routinely devalues and disadvantages Black life. Footage of the killing of George Floyd, Wyatt says, forces one to reckon with reality in a way that a written description often cannot; in that sense, the documentary can provide a more palpable way for viewers to understand the trajectory of students like Devin.
“Anytime a Black child struggles is personal to me, because I am a Black woman that used to be a Black child that other people cared enough about to fill in the gap that my family couldn’t do. So, as a community, I just think that it’s an awakening,” Wyatt says.
“The world is now catching on for the Black community … 400 years of oppression and suppression and people with their knee on our necks, and we’ve been experiencing it as a people for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Wyatt says.
The documentary, which was produced by World of Wonder and is still seeking distribution, runs a little under 90 minutes. It would need to be years long, she points out, to encapsulate the full depth of the Black experience in New Orleans. She and Freedia return, both in the film and in separate interviews for this article, to the importance of community in the city, and the ways in which they were raised—with family, friends, neighbors, and teachers stepping in to parent, nurture, and lead.
But the “village” that they speak of is eroded by the demographic and geographic impacts of Katrina, as well as violence and mass incarceration; as of late 2019, Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate in the country. In September, city data showed that one out of seven adults in New Orleans had a warrant out for their arrest, many for failure to appear for court dates for minor, nonviolent offenses. The dismantling of the public school system after Katrina led to the loss of veteran Black teachers, and education in the city is currently determined by a web of independent charter networks that have struggled with a lack of oversight and accountability, and instituted policies that routinely prioritize standardized test scores over other measures of achievement, pushing children through the system often five years or more behind in reading level.
There are few resources for students like Devin and his classmates to obtain consistent, established treatment for PTSD, which some studies estimate affects more than 60 percent of the student population.
“New Orleans is a very special place, there’s no place like it in the world, but it’s also very dangerous, and we have to deal with a lot of danger on an everyday basis,” Freedia says. “We’re a city that fights through, we fight through everything that we have to go through, when we deal with adversity … we’re a strong city, we’re a loving and family community here, and we are striving to get our kids in a better place.” At one moment in the film, she tallies up the people she’s known who have been killed by gun violence, and settles on a number between 60 and 70.
“I want [viewers] to also feel the pain that we go through when the phone calls stop and the flowers stop and caskets close, and we have to deal with all the grieving, and the aftermath, and still not knowing who’s the killer … and still not feel safe in your own community and in your own city,” she says. “Most importantly, that we’ve got to stop the violence, and we’ve got to spread the love.”
Midway through, the film veers into Hurricane Katrina and its residual impacts beyond the loss of life and property: the destruction of low-income housing, the dissolution of social services for youth and other at-risk populations, and the prevalence of PTSD and mental illness. One study found the latter doubled in the years after the storm.
“Who’s worrying about what type of child we’re going to have five or 10 years up the road?” says one man in the Lower Ninth Ward in footage from shortly after the storm.
“All that has a psychic cost,” Blow says. “I look at these boys, and I see pain.”
In 2016, the New Orleans Police Department paid out $13.3 million in lawsuits stemming from police killings and injured citizens in the months surrounding Katrina. The NOPD’s consent decree went into effect in 2013, after multiple instances of police brutality and cover-ups following Katrina. One of the men killed by police in the months after the storm was Anthony Hayes, the father of Cardell Hayes, Freedia’s cousin, who is currently serving 25 years in jail for the killing of former Saints defensive end Will Smith in a road-rage incident in 2016.
The documentary brings up a clip from December 26, 2005, that shows Anthony Hayes in a mental health crisis, surrounded by more than a dozen cops on St. Charles Avenue. He is holding a knife. The incident lasted a little more than three minutes before he was shot nine times.
Imagine having a counselor or therapist meet the elder Hayes on the street that day, Wyatt asks, or someone who understood how to address a man in the middle of a mental crisis without violence. Without the trauma of losing his father, what happens to Cardell, and his understanding of conflict resolution?
“We understand that ‘Black-on-Black’ violence exists, but just because intraracial violence happens, are we supposed to just ignore the fact that police are killing Black people or the fact that there is racism in the world?” Wyatt says.
In that sense, the documentary wraps in on itself, spooling together cause and effect. It is both extremely of the times and evergreen: There is no discussion of gun violence without acknowledging intergenerational trauma, and talking about intergenerational trauma requires an understanding of systemic racism. And then, in the case of New Orleans, there’s no way to parse through the aftermath of Katrina without recognizing both intergenerational trauma and systemic racism, the latter of which has belatedly taken a national spotlight, and hopefully for the long haul.
It’s all inextricable. Outside of the classroom where I taught Devin was a plaque that noted the building was originally named for John McDonogh, a slaveholder whose manumission scheme required the people he enslaved to work for 15 years to buy their freedom; his bust was recently removed from Duncan Plaza in New Orleans and tossed into the Mississippi River by protesters.
“There is oppression in the world,” Wyatt says. “And because a document said that we were free, that we are not actually free because of the systems that are built and continue to be perpetuated to keep us enslaved mentally, physically, economically, spiritually. So until you acknowledge that it’s still happening, present-day 2020, and until you acknowledge your role in it, whether you’re doing it by ignorance or if you’re ignoring it flat out, or because you’re uncomfortable with it, it’s not going to go away. So you have to face it head on. And I think the documentary puts it in your face in such a way that you can choose to turn it off, and that would be your choice. Or you can choose to sit down, and listen, and learn, and try to better understand what these children—who hopefully, by God’s grace, become men—have to deal with in this world.”