By the time the third police car burst into flames on the night of May 30, Julian Marshall, who'd ventured into the streets of Lower Manhattan to record protests in the wake of George Floyd's death, found himself enveloped in complete chaos.
Gas tanks ignited, smoke rose, and acrid fumes filled the sky. Cops and outraged, determined demonstrators surged all around the 30-year-old African American filmmaker and commercial director, who ducked behind some cars and kept filming with his Blackmagic Pocket 4K camera.
"Rioters set fires throughout the neighborhood," Marshall recalls. "At one point, there were two guys on dirt bikes weaving through oncoming traffic on Sixth Avenue in a chase with the police. That night was definitely one of the more dangerous situations I've ever been in."
However, Marshall says he's used to high-intensity shooting, having gotten into directing by shooting action sports like back-country snowboarding. "I'm no stranger to being in harm's way with a camera, and I have strong spatial awareness," he says. "When I felt that the chaos had finally past its peak, I headed home and the night ended with smoky clothes, blistered feet and a two-hour shower."
The resulting five-minute film, "We Are George Floyd," chronicles an uprising triggered by the horrific death of a 46-year-old unarmed black man five days earlier during his arrest by Minneapolis Police.
Marshall, whose reel includes notable work for Amazon, Apple, BWM and Nike—as well as an anti-Trump doc shot just after the 2016 presidential election—combined raw imagery from two days of unrest with impassioned, thoughtful words from philosopher/author Cornel West and rapper/activist Killer Mike.
"It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy," Killer Mike says at one point, as shots of marchers fill the screen. "It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization."
"We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burned to the ground," he says. "If you sit in your homes tonight instead of burning your homes to the ground, you will have the time to properly plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize in an effective way."
This notion of girding for the policy battles to come gives "We Are George Floyd" a sense of mission. The film argues that the emotion fueling today's protests can help generate broad and lasting reforms.
It's a work akin to director Sam Ciaramitaro's photographs from the Floyd protests in Los Angeles. Such efforts reflect what we've become, but also help us glimpse, through the mayhem, a path toward a better tomorrow.
Below, Marshall tells Muse about his experience in the streets and discusses his hopes for "We Are George Floyd."
Muse: When did you first hear about the murder of George Floyd?
Julian Marshall: I read about it in the news on the 26th and then watched the video. I was beyond disgusted. I've got to say, we are so fortunate that cell-phone cameras exist now. Growing up, I saw abuses of power by the police that would make people's heads spin. The kicker is that there were no cell-phone cameras, so there was no accountability.
What kind of abuses? Did the cops hassle you personally?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., being chased and brutalized by bored, power-hungry cops, for skateboarding, on a daily basis. D.C. is unique and has a lot of police forces. Some of the forces are actually great. But some completely abuse their power. Unfortunately, the vast majority of my experiences were before phone cameras became ubiquitous.
When did you decide to make the film?
I started to tune into the protests on Friday (May 29). I didn't sleep a wink Friday night. To be honest, I wanted to protest but was afraid because of coronavirus' virulence in NYC. Saturday morning, I watched Cornel West's interview and Killer Mike's press conference and was immediately struck. It was very clear that I had to create something productive in order to help people channel the collective outrage. Thematically, my focus was on Killer Mike's ultimate message: "Don't burn your own house down." That was the message that I wanted to hammer home. We need NYC in tip-top shape going into the November election in order to beat Trump. So we can't compound the damage done by coronavirus by burning the city to the ground in anger.
Where did you shoot? In which neighborhoods?
Most of it was shot in my neighborhood—the East Village, Union Square, Washington Square. Ninety percent of it was May 30 and the remaining 10 percent was done on May 31. I shot it entirety myself, edited it, and color-graded it. My friend and frequent collaborator Geoff Strasser did the sound design. And my friend Bilali Mack cleaned up a few shots for me. I shot just under two hours of raw footage.
What stands out most from the filming process?
On the 30th, I shot all of the daytime footage first, which went very smoothly. I wore a P100 respirator to protect myself from coronavirus so that I could move in and out of crowds more comfortably. However, everything that I shot at night was a complete surprise. After nightfall, around 9 p.m., I decided to venture back out, instinctively thinking that something unusual was going to happen. To be honest, the chaos found me. I walked out of my apartment and immediately a swarm of 20 cop cars blasted past me up Third Avenue, going toward Union Square, so I chased them. When I arrived at 13th Street and Fourth Avenue it was very clear that this night was going to be unlike anything I had ever seen in my life, outside of a film set.
There was a cop car that had been bombed and was burning into the night sky. The NYPD and FDNY had just arrived on the scene. I had to maneuver my way around cops who were trying to block my shots, but I managed to get clean shots. Then the cruiser's gas tank exploded like a bomb! After I got the shot, I made my way around the block to try to find a different angle—and suddenly, another cop car exploded and went up in flames. I managed to get better shots of this one because the cops were starting to get spread thin between the two sites. But it was pretty sketchy having no clue how these cars were blown up. I feared that someone could have been throwing IEDs in the cop cars and trash cans, so I tried to hide behind parked cars for cover as I shot. Then, just like the first cop car, the second cop car's gas tank exploded!
As if this wasn't enough, I continued down the street and a third cop car went up in flames. I carefully made my way over and shot it while again trying to find some sort of cover for safety, knowing that the third car's tank would probably explode as well.
Did the cops hassle you?
I was quick on my feet and tried not to linger in one spot for too long. I'm pretty good at being invisible. But yes, I did get pushed around by the riot cops a few times and had to scramble to protect my camera.
The film's first half takes place at night, the latter half during the day. Were you aiming for a "dawn of hope"?
That's exactly what I was going for structurally. From a color-grading standpoint … I decided to make the second half feel "inviting" to the viewer, which would amplify the call to action.
Could you speak to Cornel's line about America lacking nourishment for purpose?
Before I shot the piece, I knew, structurally, how I was going to use their voiceovers, so it made shooting the film a lot easier. The night portion of the film is voiced by Cornel West, and the day is voiced by Killer Mike.
In thinking about Cornel's "nourishment for soul, for meaning, for purpose" quote, I immediately think about our country's conundrum with higher education. Student debt is out of control. It's predatory. And it's being exacerbated by universities that are incentivized to unsustainably jack up their tuition every year. The result is a society where young people graduate college and can't take the time time to dream and find purpose because they are buried in compounding forever-debt. It's poisoning our country, and it will come back to haunt us.
What's your broader hope for the film?
The goal of the film is to help people cope with, process and channel their emotions into something actionable, which in this case is mobilizing to vote. But not just vote for president. Vote at every level. Because this election is not just about Trump. It's about Congress, it's about the Senate, and it's about the soul of our judicial system, the impact of which, to be quite honest, will outlive Trump.
Did the project change you in some deep way?
There are only a few projects that I've made where I have been in tears in the edit room. This one hit me like a brick wall. We are living in a moment where real life is more tragic than fiction. Making this film was almost like therapy for me. As we lead up to the election, I hope that I can use my craft to continue to make a productive difference.