When it comes to getting justice for Valdosta, GA teen Kendrick Johnson and his family, Jenifer Lewis isn’t playing games.
In a recent interview with Shadow And Act, Lewis quoted Big Freedia's verse from Beyonce's Formation. It's a quote Lewis is using in her next book, Walking In My Joy.
"'I did not come to play with you hoes. I came to slay,'" she quoted. "And that is my attitude with my activism. I'm not f-----g around."
Lewis is doing all she can to elevate Jason Pollock's documentary Finding Kendrick Johnson, which she narrated, to the public consciousness. The film centers on everything we know so far about Johnson’s mysterious death in his high school gym, the allegations of conspiracies and the fact that a lot of people believe that there is more to the story.
Lewis said she was asked by Pollock to lend her voice to the project. Pollock had Lewis in mind since 2017, the year he released his documentary about Michael Brown's killing, Stranger Fruit. He was sent a picture of Lewis posing with a portrait of Brown and that, plus Lewis' activism, made her a perfect choice to narrate Finding Kendrick Johnson. She immediately put everything aside to help.
"When he started working on this documentary, he chose me as a celebrity who could possibly use the platform to promote this documentary, so I got on board," she said. "You know, I was overwhelmed in my career, but…when you hear this kind of tragedy, you step up to the plate and you step as fast as you can to help find these parents justice. I mean look at what they did. They stayed on the street for years. I mean, it became a thing in Valdosta…everybody was going to support the family. These people have been on the street, again for years…and they need justice. All of our parents do, for these children who have been unjustly killed, or injured for that matter, thrown in jail for protesting. Trump and all his s---, he might as well be J. Edgar Hoover on these streets. So I got on board."
"I have to be honest with you, [narrating the film] was the most difficult thing for me to do, to say the words 'They took his [Johnson's] organs,' [or] to say the words, 'The FBI stormed somebody's house.'"
As the film reports, a now-former FBI agent whose sons were persons of interest (per an FBI investigation into the case), did have FBI agents storm his home. But charges were never brought against the brothers and the FBI's video analysis concluded that they were in a separate area of the school when Kendrick was found.
In the film, it is revealed that at some point during Johnson's initial autopsy in Valdosta, his organs were removed and his body cavity was filled with newspaper, further desecrating the young teen.
When asked what it was like to say those lines regarding Johnson's body, Lewis quoted Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now: "The horror, the horror, the horror."
The film also shows how Johnson’s death is sadly par for the course in America, which has a long history of brutal racial violence and degradation. In one instance of the film, Johnson’s death is put parallel to the circumstances surrounding Emmett Till’s death, including the public seeing the boys’ brutalized bodies. However, while Till’s mother was able to make the hard decision to show the world what racists in Mississippi did to her son, Johnson’s mother was traumatized by internet users uploading pictures of her son’s body to the internet, as was revealed in the film.
The sad thing, as Lewis spoke about in the interview, is that America continues to refuse to face its past, leading to repeats of the same violence seen decade after decade. Lewis not only discussed the lynchings and historical trauma, but how it relates to events we’ve seen in the present day, such as the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trumpism as a whole, an ideology that fosters xenophobia, racism, and outright anarchy.
"They forgot who built the Capitol," she said of the insurrectionists. "They didn't know that the glass in that building wasn't of the same quality as the one in a trailer, where [they] probably live. We built that f---ing building. And that glass is beveled, b---."
She also held Black pop culture figures, such as Busta Rhymes, who recently went on a tirade against anti-masking, and Kanye West, who famously supported Trump at the tail-end of Trump’s campaign (months after saying slavery was a “choice”).
Lewis said Rhymes and especially West "broke my heart" with their actions.
"My heart sank," she said. "They don't realize how much influence they have on these kids. Act like you got some sense and do the right thing. Harriet [Tubman] and them didn't do what they did."
"My grandmother was found dead, holding twins, both of them dead from lack of nutrition," she continued. "And you're telling me that we can't take one knee [in protest like Colin Kaepernick] when our ancestors took two knees in the cotton field?"
It's the past and present that propels Lewis to fight for the future.
"I don't f--k around when it comes to the next generation. You see, I've got everything I wanted and all I think about now…my mind is consumed with [helping] the next generation," she said, adding that there are plans for her to speak before Congress.
"I just want to do my best to help. I've got everything I wanted. Why wouldn't I just give back?" she said. "…The rest of my life will be spent giving back as much as I can."
And right now, among Lewis' top priorities is getting justice for Johnson and his family. Considering the content that the film spotlights, Lewis thinks justice is around the corner.
"[They] got a bridge down there called The Hanging Bridge," she said in part. "We comin' for that a--…We're going to win. I'm not even going to say 'If we don't.' We're going to win...One day they [Johnson family] are gonna rise up. They are gonna rise up. Like Maya [Angelou] told us, 'And still I rise.' You can do this, that and the other, but still I rise."
Finding Kendrick Johnson is now available on-demand and is screening in theaters. Learn more about the film at the links in the film's Linktree.
Watch a clip from the film below: