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October 26, 2023

In 'Bad Things in Philadelphia,' the film shows how programs for youth could ease the city's gun violence crisis

Director Kyra Knox follows organizations, like Shoot Basketballs Not People, in her debut project produced by Allen Iverson; It's now at the Philadelphia Film Festival and soon to be streaming

Movies Gun Violence
Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia Screenshot/Vimeo

Kyra Knox, pictured working behind the scenes on 'Bad Things in Philadelphia,' got her movie's name from Donald Trump's infamous 2020 presidential debate line.

As moviegoers filtered into the PFS East theater for an 8:30 p.m. showing of "Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia," director Kyra Knox marveled at how people had shown up on a weekday night — during Game 7 of the Phillies' playoff run against the Diamondbacks, no less.

"All these people came out on a Tuesday night?" she said the next day. "I was very grateful for the attendance. It was very special."

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Knox is making her directorial debut with "Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia," a documentary exploring the city's historic gun violence. Originally a short film, the movie grew into a feature and focuses on a few of the people working to address the crisis, even while they deal with the deaths of their own children, friends and family members. They include the women of Mothers in Charge, who offer counseling and mentoring services to those affected by gun violence. The group's members speak from personal experience. The group's founder, Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, for example, lost her son Khaaliq in 2001 over a parking dispute.

The film spends even more time with Garry Mills, who started Shoot Basketballs Not People. His nonprofit offers weekly basketball training for kids ages 10-16, aiming to boost their mental and physical health and reduce recidivism in the juvenile justice system. Mills, who is Knox's cousin, has also been impacted by gun violence. In the film, he says he has personally lost 13 people, including another cousin.

"It's very frustrating," Knox said. "I remember with (one of the teens in the basketball program), when we were filming in the Bay Area, it was like all this weight was off his shoulders. And when he had to go back home, he instantly was upset and sad. Because when he wasn't in Philly, he didn't feel like he had to walk with his head on a swivel, checking behind him all the time.

"Kids need these programs. They need these programs desperately."

Knox hopes to broadcast that message to the world when "Bad Things in Philadelphia" begins streaming on FOX Soul and Amazon Prime on Dec. 2. But locally, she's already started through the documentary's inclusion in the Philadelphia Film Festival. In addition to the Tuesday showing, the movie will screened at the Philadelphia Film Center on Saturday at 6:45 p.m. with former Sixer and executive producer Allen Iverson. Ahead of that showing, the director shared some insight into filmmaking and coping with the city's collective trauma:

PHILLYVOICE: You made this movie after quitting your corporate job to pursue filmmaking. But this was a return to the arts for you. Can you share a little more about your background?

KYRA KNOX: I went to the Freedom Theatre when I was 6, I also went to the (Philadelphia) High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. And I did receive the opportunity to perform Off-Broadway. Around that same time, my grandfather, who is featured in the film, passed away. And my last conversation with him was, "Pop Pop, can you put some money in my account to get my headshots?" Because back in the day — the kids got it so easy, they can just get anything printed out — I believe it cost $200, $250 to get professional headshots printed out. And the next day, he passed away from a heart attack. And even though I know as an adult, it wasn't my fault, at the time, I thought I was the cause of that.

After I finished the play, "Corner Wars," I quit the arts for 10 years. Then I got engaged. And when I got engaged, I just felt like something was missing. And I realized that it was my love of the arts. So I started slowly getting back into it. I did a one-woman show called "Inner Strength," which actually really helped me work through my grandfather's death. And then I slowly started getting behind the camera. Around that time, I asked my husband, I said, "Hey, I can't do this anymore. I wanna be a producer. Can I quit my job?" He said, "Gimme 90 days." And I walked into my job and I gave them my 90 days' notice. Then I was just a runner working at a boutique production company one day a week. Slowly but surely I started producing docuseries and became a director.

PV: The movie was originally short that grew into a feature. Can you tell me more about how this idea came to you and how it expanded? 

KNOX: I got inspired by watching my cousin Garry. Just watching his journey with these kids, and then also watching how he struggled for so many years trying to get funding, I wanted to really tell his story. And it was just one of those things where you just feel like you have something special. And then it just turned into a feature film where I also included Mothers in Charge. (Because) when you're gonna turn it into a full-length film, that started making me think. We're talking about how Shoot Basketballs Not People is keeping kids off the street, but what about families that actually lost their children to gun violence? How are they dealing with that?

I actually went to one of their meetings before I even started filming them just to get a feel of how Mothers in Charge is. And I was just inspired by how these mothers who have lost their kids to gun violence, how they are like rocks in this community and how they're constantly calling other mothers and families when they lose their children. 

PV: You captured some really vulnerable moments of people sharing their grief. How did you build trust with them and provide a space where they felt comfortable doing that? 

KNOX: Oh man, it was tough. I would say one of the things was the fact that I am born and raised in Philadelphia. I don't live in the suburbs or anything like that. I live right here in Germantown. And I grew up uptown in West Oak Lane. So it wasn't like someone was coming from the outside to tell their story. I also look like them, I look like the people that I featured. So that built trust, as well.

The kids, I've known them since they were little goobers in Garry's program. But with Mothers in Charge, my first time meeting them was not just throwing a camera in their face. I actually took the time and effort to get to know the people that I was going to be filming to build that trust. Another way that I build trust is that I would tell people, "Look, if you don't want something in the film after we do the interview, please call me. I don't care about release forms, anything like that, because I am a guest in your home. I am telling your story, and I want you to feel comfortable." And actually, one of the women, Rachel, at Mothers in Charge, she did (contact me) like two days after we filmed. She sent me an email and asked me not to disclose certain information. And I took it out. I took it completely out of the film. So I've really felt like that built that trust, too, that I wasn't going to exploit anyone's stories. 

PV: Throughout the movie you also include news clips reporting different shootings in the city. Was that difficult for you personally combing through all those hours of violence? 

KNOX: Yeah, you know, I tell people all the time, I really should have went to therapy during all of this. Because you gotta think, first I'm interviewing, right? Then you're going through the editing process where you're listening to these stories over and over again. And then the archival footage that you just spoke of and watching that.

I've taken in so much trauma, that there were a lot of times that I would just cry. Or I would just be depressed and my husband would be like, "What's wrong?" I realized it's because I was taking all of this negativity and all this trauma and everything inside, and it's really affected me and it still affects me, to be honest. Because then you go through the film festival circuit and you're hearing other people's stories afterwards. It's been very, very difficult. And I think that once this film is out, out, and I really have time to sit alone, I think that's when I'm really going to go into therapy to work through all of these emotions that I've been holding in. 'Cause it's not easy. It's very heavy. And it's people's lives. 

PV: Multiple people in the documentary say that Philadelphia used to feel safer to them or just be safer, but something changed over the last couple years. What do you think changed? 

KNOX: The programs aren't there. I mean, even when I was a kid, we had the PAL program. I was a Simons Dynamic Stepper at Simons Playground. There were always so many different types of free programs for us kids. And you don't see that anymore. So these kids are bored. They're getting into trouble. They don't have a lot of mentorship. They don't have people to look out for them.

And another thing is, talking about looking out, I remember when I was a kid, the whole neighborhood looked out for each other's kids. So if we were doing something that was not right, best believe my neighbor across the street was gonna go to my mother and say, "This is what your child has been doing." You don't see that that much anymore because people are afraid to go outside nowadays. You don't see kids playing jump rope. You don't really see kids at the playground. It kind of feels like you're a prison in your own city. 

PV: In the film, Garry also expresses this sense of frustration over how the city is responding to the gun violence crisis or where it's spending its money. Would you say that's a common feeling you encountered? 

KNOX: Yes, across the board. I think the problem is that a lot of times this funding is going to these larger organizations versus the smaller ones that are like boots on the ground, every day doing the work. Because I've seen my cousin go broke keeping Shoot Basketballs Not People afloat. I've seen Mothers in Charge constantly out there asking for funding, asking for help, because they have so many different programs that they have going on. And I think if the city could donate to these smaller programs, these smaller nonprofit organizations, that would help out a lot because these are the organizations that are in the community right now, you know? And they're not doing programs once every quarter. They're doing programs every single day. 

PV: Shoot Basketballs Not People got an anonymous $10,000 donation after the documentary screened in the Bay Area. Do you have any other information you can share on donations or any help that the featured organizations have received since the movie started playing festivals? 

KNOX: In the credits I have a call to action where I challenge people to donate to Mothers in Charge and Shoot Basketballs Not People. And they've received donations. I'm not sure the exact number, I just remember 10,000 'cause that was a huge donation. But yeah, every screening people have been donating to these nonprofits and that's what I wanted. I didn't set out to do this film for fame or fortune or any of that. It just started out a passion project, as a love letter to my city. So the fact that people are donating, that makes my heart full, because that makes me know that what I set out to accomplish is actually happening. 

PV: Have you have any other memorable interactions from the crowds at your previous screenings?

KNOX: A lot of people tell me that I take them on an emotional rollercoaster. I get that. I make people cry. But I make sure that the film is not sad the whole way. There are parts where people have laughed. When we were in Miami, it premiered at the American Black Film Festival, (and) one of the men in the crowd, he said that even though he's not from Philadelphia, this story resonates with him. He can see this type of story in any city in our country. And that goes to show you what's been going on in our country as a whole when it comes to gun violence, that someone that's not even from the city of Philadelphia can see themselves in this film. 

PV: You made a point at the screening to say that you have not, and will not leave Philly. Why won't you?

KNOX: Because it's my city. I love it here. This is where I was born and raised, and there's so many amazing things about Philly. If we all give up on our city, then what is gonna be left of Philadelphia? I want to continue my grandfather's work. He helped out his community, and I want to continue that with my gift of filmmaking to create stories about Philadelphia, to spread awareness of our city, to create impact in our city. Because I don't wanna give up on my city. I love it too much. I'm a Philly girl all day, every day.

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