More Smoke: Cami Thomas’ ‘Smoke City’ Resumes as a Feature-Length Documentary
Every season of “Smoke City,” the critically acclaimed documentary webseries by St. Louis auteur Cami Thomas, contains a challenge. Woven among personal histories and the complex political geographies that make up the St. Louis metro area, there’s an implicit call to action: go see for yourself.
But in a recent campaign video for an Indiegogo effort to fund the third and final installment of the series, Thomas’ voiceover made the underlying conceit of the series—that passively watching a 10- or 15-minute video about a neighborhood isn’t actually doing the work to bridge St. Louis’ schisms—explicit: “Don’t listen from your couch or from the bubble of a community that you never left. Listen by venturing outside the confines of what your parents told you was safe.”
Photo courtesy of Nyara.
For many native St. Louisans, that particular wording will strike a chord. Thomas herself is no stranger to the ways in which parental perceptions can shape the next generation’s feelings about a neighborhood. “When I was a kid, if there was a sweet sixteen in Chesterfield or O’Fallon, my parents would take me. But when I had my own sweet sixteen in Florissant, there were parents who would raise concerns about the safety of my classmates who would be coming out there,” she recalls.
Thomas is quick to acknowledge that these divides run deep—often generations deep—and it’s one of the reasons that the creation of “Smoke City” felt like a necessary act. Upon returning to St. Louis in 2015 after graduating from college, Thomas was struck by the ways in which the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson had laid bare the geographical disconnects that had been undercurrents in the city for decades. “I realized that there are a lot of people who grew up in one area [of the city] and continue to live and work in that same area who don’t necessarily have a connection to other parts of the city. And if you’re not conversing with people who have a different St. Louis experience, you’re going to get into a groupthink mindset and believe that your perception is the complete picture of what it’s like to live in the city.”
Photo courtesy of Nyara.
“Smoke City,” as Thomas tells it, was a way to start a conversation around these disconnects. “It’s an introduction on how to be more open-minded and look at your city with a more complete view. But it’s meant to lead people to do the work right after they watch the series.”
In the years since “Smoke City” season one debuted, Thomas says she has seen people begin to respond to her call to action and take up the mantle of creating a more inclusive awareness of the city. “In 2014, the people I saw at protests were a certain demographic—the demographic that was directly affected. Whereas if you fast-forward to now, or even in 2017 with the Jason Stockley verdict and subsequent protests, I’ve seen a more diverse group of people—people from different areas, and people who were not directly affected by it. Just using that as a measuring stick … I’ve noticed more people standing up for what’s right and standing up for voices in the marginalized groups that they don’t belong to.”
Image courtesy of Erica Jones.
Still, Thomas is deferential to those community organizers who she says have “reinvigorated the modern protest movement” locally. “I say I’m an activist in the form of art, but there are people who are activists in the form of groundwork and really doing the heavy lifting to get things on track. They’ve been doing the work for years, for decades, so I think as new people join the movement and start to rise up, it’s important to acknowledge the people who have already started to set plans.”
“Smoke City” itself has grown accordingly—season three will be Thomas’ most ambitious project yet, adopting a feature-length documentary style rather than the serialized format that defined past iterations. With the change in scope comes a change in budget—hence the Indiegogo campaign—and a new production company under the FTCTV moniker.
For Thomas, the timing is right: “With everything going on in the city, and country, and the world, the goal of making sure that people’s voices are uplifted holds more weight than just making cool stories. It’s work that needs to happen now. We really can’t wait any longer to be on the same page with other people, because it’s dangerous when we’re not on the same page. It’s dangerous.” With national headlines of hate crimes, racial epithets and profiling becoming a daily occurrence, it’s a difficult claim to refute—and all the more reason to engage locally.
Featured image courtesy of Erica Jones.