Director Jason Pollock is angry — and that rage pours over in his new documentary Finding Kendrick Johnson, detailing the case of the 17-year-old Valdosta student whose body was found inside a high school gymnasium mat. The film is currently streaming and will be in theaters this fall.
On January 11, 2013, Johnson was found dead in the Lowndes High School gym. After an investigation, local and state officials ruled that the death was accidental from positional asphyxia. A family-hired forensics pathologist, however, found Johnson’s organs were missing from his body during the autopsy and made his own conclusion that the death was caused by non-accidental blunt force trauma.
Finding Kendrick Johnson digs into significant detail about the case, suggesting a widespread cover-up from the high school to the FBI, and charts eight years of often maddening events. It’s narrated by actress Jenifer Lewis, who has called the film the most important with which she has ever been involved.
The murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 was a catalyst for Pollock. He moved to the area to “support the movement” and worked on the documentary Stranger Fruit, interviewing family of the young man shot by Officer Darren Wilson.
“All the families who had been victimized by the government were traveling there to support the Brown family and coming together,” he says.
Pollock met many of them and became friends with Kendrick Johnson’s mother, Jacquelyn, on Facebook. He saw images she shared of her son’s face after his death and the mat in question.
“For me it was the mat that made me need to do the film,” Pollock says. “That photograph where you see his shoes shoved into the mat, proved someone shoved his shoes into the mat. The fact that that photo’s been out there since the beginning and the state ruled the way they did — anyone with an iota of common sense knows this is wrong and is all about racism.”
Pollock, who worked as an assistant to Michael Moore on Fahrenheit 9/11 and has been influenced by the documentarian, spent the last four years on the film. He conducted interviews with Johnson’s family, former homicide detective Mitch Credle and Atlanta civil rights activist Tyrone Brooks, and did his own undercover investigation. In making the film he uncovered school footage that he says had been obtained by the FBI of Johnson and classmate Brian Bell, once considered a person of interest, feet apart in the school that afternoon, despite the fact that Bell said he had not seen Johnson that day.
In March, the case was re-opened by Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk, but Pollock does not know where it will lead. He’s frustrated, particularly that the case is still making national news but hasn’t received the press he feels it deserves in Atlanta.
“It’s the biggest case in Georgia,” he says. He calls Kendrick Johnson this generation’s Emmett Till but points out that, even in the ‘60s, Till’s story received coverage near and far.
The director hopes to take matters directly to Congress and President Joe Biden to seek an oversight committee to investigate the FBI and what happened in the case. He is not optimistic that justice will be served in Georgia.
Pollock has nothing but admiration for the Johnson family in their efforts for justice. “Jacquelyn is a mother who will not stop fighting for her child in this incredibly racist system. She will never stop.”
Elsewhere, approximately four dozen film and TV projects are filming (or are able to start) in the state. Some local names are part of high-profile projects.
Local theater and film actress Danielle Deadwyler stars with Whoopi Goldberg in Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, about Emmett Till and his mother Mamie (Deadwyler) pursuing justice after his son’s lynching. Jalyn Hall stars as the titular character. It’s an MGM release.
MGM is also filming the faith-based On a Wing and a Prayer starring Dennis Quaid. In it, a passenger has to land a plane with his family aboard after a pilot dies. Based on a true story, it’s produced by local Autumn Bailey-Ford, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel) and directed by Sean McNamara, who has worked with Quaid on Soul Surfer and 2022’s Reagan.
Wedding Crashers 2, the sequel to the 2005 surprise hit, is set to begin filming soon. Directed by David Dobkin, who oversaw the original, it’s in its early stages with the cast to be determined. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are expected to return to this Warner Brothers comedy.
Based on Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, Wheat Germ follows a train wreck that causes a gas leak and forces a mass evacuation of a town. It’s a Netflix original movie with Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle headlining the cast, with Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story) adapting and directing.
Netflix is also the home of Dog Gone, starring Rob Lowe, who is also producing. It’s about a father and son who attempt to make peace while they hike the Appalachian Trail to find their lost dog. Stephen Herek (Mr. Holland’s Opus) directs.
In the absence of Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last year, the Black Panther sequel — Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever — is now filming with Ryan Coogler again directing. Boseman is not being replaced, but cast members include Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o.
Another new title is Jerry and Marge Go Large, in which the titular couple (Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening) win the lottery and try to salvage their small town. David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) directs with a supporting cast including Michael McKean, Anna Camp and Rainn Wilson.
19 current TV titles are reality projects and many more perennials, such as The Walking Dead and The Resident, are filming again. Yet a few new shows are in the Georgia mix.
Kingdom Business is an eight-episode series that examines family, faith and love amid the gospel industry, produced by DeVon Franklin, Holly Carter, Kirk Franklin and Michael Van Dyck. It’s being produced for BET.
NBC’s Ordinary Joe, a pilot that the studio was high on, is now shooting its first season. James Wolk (Mad Men, Political Animals) stars in this drama, debuting this fall, which follows parallel timelines of a man who makes a pivotal decision at his college graduation. It’s produced by Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend.
Those looking for their next superhero fix will be overjoyed that the pilot for the DC Comics television series Naomi is now in production, produced by Ava Duvernay (Selma) and Jill Blankenship. In this CW series, Kaci Walfall plays a self-assured high school student who digs comic books more than studying. After an accident, she discovers her supernatural abilities. Look for it next spring.