Jason Pollock: “As an artist I try to make art that helps cure the ailments of our society”

On January 11, 2013, Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old Black student and high school wrestler, was found dead, rolled up in a gym mat in the Lowndes High School gymnasium in Valdosta, Georgia. The state of Georgia ruled his mysterious death as an accident, having died from positional asphyxia. When the family hired their own Forensic Pathologist, not only did he find Kendrick’s organs missing from his body during the autopsy, he determined the cause of death to be from non-accidental blunt force trauma. To this day, no one knows where Kendrick’s organs have gone. So what really happened to KJ?

“Finding Kendrick Johnson” is the feature documentary product of a 4-year undercover investigation into the facts of this case, with many uncensored and deeply disturbing images, and at times it is hard and difficult to watch. Director-producer-screenwriter Jason Pollock, who created “Stranger Fruit” (2017), about the death of Michael Brown in 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, hopes his latest documentary will shed light on one of the most important American stories of our time because what really happened to Kendrick Johnson was pretty much pushed under the rug. So much more had happened to him; he was murdered, they took his organs, and then his body was exhumed twice for independent investigation only to find out that he had been stuffed with newspaper. Yes, this is what really happened, what Kendrick Johnson had to endure, and what his family has to live with.

”Finding Kendrick Johnson” is told through the eyes of his family and close friends and narrated by actress Jenifer Lewis. She also executive produces the film; Jason Pollock’s team includes actor Hill Harper, also executive producer, and Malcolm D. Lee, producer, who directed “Space Jam 2.” “Finding Kendrick Johnson” shares this truly historic, heartbreaking, and unbelievable story with the world for the first time. It includes footage, historical video, in-depth interviews with parents, family, friends and investigators such as whistleblower Mitch Credle, a veteran homicide detective in Washington, D.C., who was brought in to lead the investigation after several local officials recused themselves.

“The case of Kendrick Johnson is one the most important cases in U.S. history,” says Mr. Pollock, “KJ deserves justice, and hopefully our film will help his family get one step closer to that outcome.” Actress and activist Jenifer Lewis says, “This is the most important film I’ve ever worked on. What this family has gone through is unspeakable, but we must speak it, so the public knows the truth. Jason [Pollock] has done a brilliant job on this vital story of injustice.”

”Finding Kendrick Johnson” screened in U.S. theaters in October 2021; the film is available on VOD and will be premiering on STARZ on December 27, 2021.

During this Zoom interview with Mr. Pollock, he talked about “Finding Kendrick Johnson” and his work as a filmmaker.

Mr. Pollock, when did you first hear about Kendrick Johnson and what had happened to him?

I first heard about KJ during the Ferguson uprising. I was living there, making my previous film “Stranger Fruit” with the Michael Brown family. Many families who had experienced violence and similar situations were pilgriming—Ferguson was like a pilgrimage for those families. They were all coming together to support one another. When I was there, I met many famous families—also families that you hadn’t heard of and that went to Ferguson too. The Johnson family had one of those stories that I didn’t hear, but within this very close-knit Black family community, they all know the Johnson family. They are very well-known within that circle because of how disgusting their case is. So I met with them, became Facebook friends with them, and quickly started seeing KJ’s mutilated face in my Facebook feed almost every day: his mother shared it almost every day. I was very triggered, obviously, and I had to look into what was going on there. Then I started doing my research to understand the situation that KJ had gone through. That was really troubling. After “Stranger Fruit” came out in 2017, I had a long conversation with the Brown family who they thought I should do next. They suggested KJ, even though he wasn’t the most famous one, but that didn’t matter: it mattered about which case needed the treatment that I just gave them the most. So after their blessing, it felt that KJ was the right one to do. I talked to his family at the end of 2017—that’s when I got the proper rights and permission from them—and, since then, I have been working on this every day for four years.

Actress Jenifer Lewis, left, and filmmaker Jason Pollock, second from right, with the Johnson family | Courtesy of Millennial PR

Does that mean you invested your time and energy in it every day for four years?

Yes. I don’t have another job, and I don’t work on another film project when I take on a case. I told the [Johnson] family that this was the only thing I would be doing. I always work on one project at a time. I’m not the type of filmmaker that will put out two TV shows and one film every year. I believe that my films are art, and you can’t rush it. This is not a documentary factory over here, I try to produce artwork, and that takes a long time. When you see it, you feel that it took four years to make, not six months. And I’m not there to make as much money as I can in the documentary industry. I don’t work on anything else. And it’s grueling. And no one pays me. I haven’t made any money with these films for seven years.

So it’s a labor of love?

Absolutely, it’s not about the money. We live in a racist society, and as an artist, I try to make art that helps cure the ailments of our society. That art is extremely impactful, but it doesn’t get any money from Hollywood. Suppose I would make a documentary about surfing or about a rock star, that would be something totally different.

How did you get the film financed?

Well, no one wanted to give me money, no network wanted to air it, and every film festival rejected the film. But now our film has grossed more, it made more noise, and got more publicity than virtually every film that those festivals let in. They all wanted the Michael Brown documentary, but sadly nobody cared about KJ. Nobody still cares about KJ. If I had made a film about a more famous name that the festivals had known about, I’m sure they would have gotten it. But at the end of the day, “Finding Kendrick Johnson” is now one of the biggest documentaries of 2021, and the only reason that this film got out is because I went back to my previous distributor Gravitas Ventures, after everybody in Hollywood had ignored me for two years. Gravitas was a huge supporter of my work because we did a license agreement for “Stranger Fruit,” and they saw how well that film was doing for them. They thought, ‘Jason got another film. Of course, we’ll put it out.’ So I basically bypassed all the gatekeepers, every door was shut, and I went around every shut door to get this out. Then we got theatrical distribution, and then we got our Oscar-qualifying run. So there is a way to get around all of this; no matter what, even if they all shut the door, you can still get your film out. But the only reason this film came out, though, is because I had “Stranger Fruit” out in the marketplace, and it was doing well.

How did you assemble your team with your producers, co-editor,… because at some point, you have to start from scratch. How does that work exactly?

I had worked for Michael Moore from 2003 until 2006, and I met all the people he worked with. When I left in 2006, I partnered with many of them; they were my good friends. So I have been working with the same people almost for fifteen years. They’re all close confidants. We all worked together with Michael Moore on the biggest documentaries of all time. So they support me, and whenever I start a project, I know I have a team. Having said that, and because we only have very small budgets, I am very much an auteur in the sense that I direct the film, I produce it, write and edit, and I shoot some of the film. We did have a cinematographer this time—this was the first time in my career that I’ve been able to afford a cinematographer [laughs]. The most crucial element to this is that I can edit my films myself. If you want a good editor, it costs you like $5,000 to $6,000 a week; those guys are highly sought-after individuals. I have been very lucky to work with the great Kurt Engfehr, who has kind of mentored me over the last five years about how to be a good editor. And I got pretty good at it now, so I don’t have to pay that person. That really saves me most of the money documentary directors and producers are spending to get their films made. Editing costs a fortune. And suppose they edit you in the wrong direction for a month, then you have to edit yourself back, and that costs two months of editing. So what’s in my head can come out through my fingers, through the keyboard and timeline. That’s a very powerful saving. Once I became an editor, the work really took off. And Kurt has been incredible with me; he’s also my executive producer, one of my best friends, and he’s an editor on the film as well.

How do you work together when you’re editing?

I edit the whole thing, and then, I jokingly say, he’s kind of Mariano Rivera, the famous Yankee closer—when the Yankees were down by one or up by one, they would bring in Rivera, the pitcher, to shut it down. And so I bring Kurt in. He’s the closer who tightens everything and makes it better. But we have a very small team, and it’s a team that I’ve worked with for almost two decades. We work really well together.

KJ’s parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson | Courtesy of Millennial PR

Were you, during editing, also in contact with the Johnson family? Because you are telling their story, and they put their story in your hands.

I used to talk to them a lot, but I didn’t try to bother the family too much. I filmed each project with the families in four days. So I’m only filming them for four days. The rest of those four years, I’m right here writing the movie, doing the research, doing the investigation that nobody has done for them, and I find new evidence for the family. That takes me a long time. They call me all the time, asking for updates, but there is no real update, which is annoying for them. Making these movies is like watching paint dry; it’s so slow. But a lot of the movie is done with me, sitting here in front of my computer, like a writer who is writing. I take what I wrote, and then make the scene with what I have. That takes a long time, just sitting here. So I don’t want to bother the families because they are in a state of trauma, and I don’t need them to tell their story fifty times. Everyone in the press wants to ask them the same thing. Everyone in the press wants them to relive the worst day of their life over and over again. I didn’t want to do that. I got their official version of the events, they told their story in a very emotional, authentic way, and then I’m done. And I don’t need 1,700 different shots at the grocery store. I look at it the way a surgeon does. You do surgery with the family; you want to get something out, but you don’t want to cause a lot of pain. So you don’t make a big cut, or you don’t go in and make messy cuts because those scars take a long time to heal. When you go in, do what you need to do and then out of there. So what I mean, the family is already going through enough, and you don’t want this project to be something that’s constantly coming up in their life. I’d rather do my thing with them, then get out of the way, and build the movie in my workshop.

What would you consider the essence of your film?

I think the essence of my film is beyond the case. It’s the story of a loving family and what it’s like to lose a child, and put a human face on the headlines. It’s also a story about America. You learn a lot about the context of our nation, how we treated Black people, and Kendrick’s story is what it’s like to be Black in America, which is the story of constant trauma and being attacked every which way. If he had been a white boy, this never would have happened. The details of the case are important, I think, but the viewer leaves with a much bigger message than the case. That’s the power of the film: it’s not just a film about the case. It’s not just a true crime doc. It obviously has that in it, but then it goes much bigger. And there’s no resolution, there’s no answer, and there may never be. I mean, how do you live like that? How can a town that knows the truth go on and pretend like it [KJ’s death] was an accident? The whole town knows what happened, and they’re just trying to move on like it’s Pleasantville while there’s a deep, dark layer under the town.

Actress Jenifer Lewis | Courtesy of Millennial PR

Did you have to convince Jenifer Lewis to join you and do the narration?

It wasn’t that hard to get her involved once she heard about the project. She committed very quickly, so I was very fortunate to have her on board. My producer Malcolm D. Lee had contacted her; they have been friends in the industry for a long time. Malcolm is a great director. He just directed “Space Jam 2.” So once she found out, she was in immediately. And she’s been really like an activist for the film, and not just a celebrity for the film. Very commonly when you get a very famous person as a narrator, and you ask them to publicize your work, you might get one post, one tweet, and then they move on with their lives. But Jenifer has put in so much time, so many hours, so much dedication, so many posts, so many TV appearances. Celebrities just don’t really do this. Jenifer has made this a mission for her. I never thought it would be possible for someone as influential as her to be working that much. So we’re very grateful to her. If she had given us that one post, we’d still have been so grateful to her. The narration that she provided is so powerful, and it took the film to another level. This is the first time that I took my voice out of a film; you know, working with Michael Moore, I was taught to make films a certain way, but I’m not Michael Moore, and I don’t want to make films like that, so changing my voice to her voice was one of the best things I’ve ever done as an artist. It was about reprogramming what I had been taught to see, maybe something bigger than I ever saw. And Jenifer is continuing to work for us; she was on national TV yesterday, talking about it, and she wants to go to Congress with this. We’re trying to keep KJ’s name alive because there are so many names, so many families, you really have to fight for any bit of space to get your case out there. Having Jenifer on board is that extra juice we needed.

Did “Finding Kendrick Johnson” get a lot of coverage in the U.S.?

Immense amounts. We have 2,500 five-star reviews on Amazon Prime. We’re quite proud of how we performed once we got it out there because it’s just so hard to get your film out. But the people have responded to Hollywood and said, ‘You were wrong, we love this, and we’re gonna keep watching it and sharing it.’ So it’s been gratifying for me to see that all the hard work and getting rejected so many times did finally pay off in terms of getting the film out.

Jason Pollock and Jenifer Lewis, both center, at the rally for Kendrick Johnson, outside of the Laemmle Theater, North Hollywood | Courtesy of Millennial PR

Can you tell something about the Oscar-qualifying run you mentioned earlier?

Yes. We did a rally because we got our Oscar-qualifying run [Laemmle Theater, North Hollywood]. That was a big moment for me as a filmmaker; it was the first time I got that. We asked Jenifer to come to the theater and have a rally outside the theater on opening night, so we were able to have a little press moment out there for KJ, just to amplify the evening. It was definitely a special night. We have been able to make a commercially successful documentary, and now that people see it, KJ’s story is getting out there. That’s really all that matters. His family has more avenues to pursue justice basically for him. Sadly, no matter what people like me do, we’re not going to bring their child back, and we’re not gonna get them justice. And those are the two things they want. So in your heart, you know you fall short because you can’t give them what they really want. They have a big movie out, but they have a big movie out because their kid is dead. It’s not that something good happened. I truly hope that they find some peace, someday, and that the film helps them find some peace in some way. But having lost your child this way, it’s very hard to find any peace in anything.

Zoom interview
December 1, 2021

“Finding Kendrick Johnson” (2021, trailer)

DOCUMENTARIES

FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004) DIR – SCR Michael Moore PROD Michael Moore, Kathleen Glynn, Jim Czarnecki ADDITIONAL CAMERA OPERATOR Jason Pollock ED Christopher Seward, Kurt Engfehr, T. Woody Richman CAST Michael Moore, Craig Unger, Jack Cloonan, Dan Briody, Carol Ashley

WORDS AND MUSIC IN HONOR OF FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2005) DIR Lisa Taback PROD April Adams SUPERVISING PROD Jason Pollock SCR Gregory Doucette CAM Christian Meyers ED Alan Bills CAST Joan Baez, Roseanne Barr, Jeff Gibbs, Valerie Harper, Michael Moore

CAPTAIN MIKE ACROSS AMERICA, U.S. video title SLACKER UPRISING (2007) DIR – SCR Michael Moore FIRST ASSISTANT DIR Jason Pollock PROD Michael Moore, Monica Hampton ASSOCIATE PROD Jason Pollock CAM Bernardo Loyola, Kirsten Johnson ED Bernardo Loyola, David Feinberg CAST Michael Moore, Eddie Vedder, Robert Ellis Orrall, Steve Earle, Celeste Zappala, Eric Blickenstaff, Anthony Pietsch, Dante Zappala, Joan Baez, Viggo Mortensen, Roseanne Barr

THE YOUNGEST CANDIDATE (2008) DIR – SCR Jason Pollock PROD Jason Pollock, David Letterman, Gus Roxburgh, Shaun Murphy, Lawrence Bender CAM Jason Pollock, Keyan Safyari ED Andy Grieve CAST Ytit Chauhan, Raul De Jesus, George Monger, Tiffany Tupper

UNDROPPABLE (2013)

STRANGER FRUIT (2017) DIR – SCR – PROD Jason Pollock CAM Jason Pollock, Beth Cloutier ED Jason Pollock, Kurt Engfehr CAST Michael Brown Sr., Maxine Brown, Banjamin Crump, Bernard Ewings, Anthony Gray, Patrick Green, Dorian Johnson, Brittanie McSpadden, Lezley McSpadden, Geneva Reed-Veal

FINDING KENDRICK JOHNSON (2021) DIR – SCR Jason Pollock PROD Jason Pollock, Malcolm D. Lee, Amy McCampbell CO-PROD Jeremy Brunson, Mariah Stewart EXEC PROD Jenifer Lewis, Kurt Engfehr, Elizabeth Hurwitz, Lenny Beckerman, Hill Harper, Dia Sokol Savage CAM D. Alan Mills ED Jason Pollock, Kurt Engfehr MUS Dan Edinberg CAST Mitch Credle, Jackie Johnson, Kenneth Johnson, Jenifer Lewis (Narrator)