St. Louis activist and filmmaker Cami Thomas moved back to St. Louis from college a year after Michael Brown’s death. While news of the 2014 shooting and the protests that followed grabbed national attention, she was miles away at school — grappling with the developments and fallout.
When she returned to St. Louis, Thomas said people told her she was fortunate to move back “after the smoke cleared.” In talking with neighbors and friends, however, she wondered if locals weren’t still wrestling with age-old problems — namely segregation and discrimination.
That notion is the premise for Thomas’ documentary series "Smoke City." She developed the series to understand the region’s racial and socioeconomic divides. Thomas says she hopes the episodes encourage people to get to know neighborhoods besides their own.
Thomas recently moved to Chicago but says she wants to continue the series and perhaps expand it to other Midwestern cities that continue to struggle with segregation and related fault lines.
Thomas: When I moved back to St. Louis, something I kept hearing was people saying, "You know, it’s good that you moved back later; you know, after the smoke cleared." After the smoke cleared. I kept hearing that phrase over and over.
What I noticed in my own community and amongst my peers and my friend group was that the smoke hadn’t cleared for a lot of people. It kind of started this investigation — a conversation — that I would just have with people saying, “Hey, like, during this last year when the smoke had supposedly been clearing, have you actually ventured out into north county?”
There was a resounding no.
In the first season, the audience meets residents of five communities around the region, including Walnut Park, Ballwin, Florissant and Ferguson. They mainly talk about how regional divisions affect many aspects of social life, including housing and business. The second season features interviews of residents in another set of communities around the same theme of segregation.
Lisenby: What did you learn during those interviews?
Thomas: I learned that I’m from St. Louis, born and raised, so I have a lot of faith and a lot of love in the city. And I learned that a lot of people want to understand their neighbors. They want to be able to help and maybe just aren’t equipped, or didn’t feel very equipped to figure out what those next steps were on their own. Something else I learned was no matter the area, everyone had come into contact with the racial divide of St. Louis in some way or another. My assumption growing up in north county was that I kind of felt the brunt of everything. Whereas, if someone lives in another part of the city, they notice that divide as well it just kind of manifested in a different way.
Lisenby: What do you hope this documentary conveys to an outsider, someone who is watching and has no real contact or connection with the region?
Thomas: Honestly, if you’re watching from elsewhere, these communities, these people could be from anywhere. What happened in St. Louis — explosive moments that happened in St. Louis — that can happen anywhere. The lessons we’ve learned in St. Louis and continue to learn are definitely lessons that people can and should apply to their own communities as well.
Liseby: The second season of "Smoke City" is premiering on Sept. 27. What is the difference between season one and season two?
Thomas: I think the biggest difference, personally, is that it is far less polite. You know, we have to have these conversations on a national level.
I’ve done screenings of season one. I’ve done select screenings of season two before I drop it in the weeks leading up, and a lot of the feedback or the things people will say is, "You know, that’s interesting, I never knew that this area was like that," or "I never knew someone in this area of the city would have experienced something like this." The next step after watching it to have that due diligence and go to a part of the city you haven’t been to yet. You know, I don’t want the experience to end after someone stops watching the episodes. I want it to be the start of diving deeper.
You can catch the second season of Smoke City starting on Sept. 27 on For The Culture TV.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.