Philadelphia native Kyra Knox is among the filmmakers the Black Film Center & Archive connected with during our recent outreach efforts. Serendipitously, she was scheduled to work a commercial set on IU Bloomington’s campus, where we’re located, & she was able to stop by for a tour. (We shared an overview of this visit in the April 2023 newsletter; click here to receive monthly BFCA updates!) After learning Knox’s feature documentary Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia will premiere at the American Black Film Festival, we caught up with her again online, alongside Mark Mims who serves as an Executive Producer on the film.
Mims hacked the music industry, winning a Grammy early in his career for work on Kirk Franklin’s The Fight of My Life. He believed he could also hack the film industry on behalf of Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia. His first introduction to the documentary was through a mutual friend who texted him, demanding he drop everything immediately to watch the sizzle teaser when it was released. Though Knox didn’t “know him from a can of paint,” he was able to convince her to halt the crowdfunding campaign she’d planned meticulously & let him tap into his connections for the level of support the project deserved. Mims pitched to the film studio he was working with at the time, but as with many Black stories it was difficult to “sell” to executives. Their response was among the reasons Mims founded a production company of his own, Home Studios, with Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia as its very first film. They returned to a “we’ll do it ourselves” approach, leaning into a wider network. Soon enough, a beloved name in the city of Philadelphia, Allen Iverson, was woven into the credits. But it truly is Knox whose drive shines through.
We’re spoiled having such an amazing partner right off the bat. She’s such a joy to work with.
Knox emphasized that she wasn’t the only one to take a leap of faith. “Mark did close to a year’s worth of work on this film before we signed any contract. We started out with trust.”
Knox has several years of experience as a producer herself, in the world of film, collaborating with heavy-hitter clients like the 76ers, Verizon Media, & Warner Music Group, collecting her own awards along the way. She was thirty-four years old when she decided to commit her work life to filmmaking, but her love for storytelling began at the age of six while playing Sammy Davis Jr. for Freedom Theater.
When she speaks of those fondest memories growing up in her city, she smiles with her entire face, her voice sings, her hands fly in the air. It’s really no surprise her debut feature would be a “love letter” to Philadelphia.
People who are from Philly—we’re die-hard Philadelphians. We’re very tough. We even boo our own athletes. We’re passionate! We love our city & we always come back.
Knox’s eyes soften when her Pop Pop comes up, Fred Warren Caliman. Caliman is remembered as a force in the community who served as President of the local chapter of Concerned Black Men & dedicated much of his time to enriching the lives of inner-city youth. He encouraged Knox as well as her peers to explore, to learn, to take a chance & engage in perhaps unexpected hobbies like rowing or chess tournaments. & though he wasn’t a wealthy man, he was able to pull together resources to provide opportunities for college tours as well. Knox follows in the legacy of her Pop Pop, heart-felt devotion to their community, & her documentary is only one example of how.
Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia centers youth in the conversation on gun violence and the organizations that are doing on-the-ground work to change a painful history. “I want kids to be kids again,” Knox said.
I want kids to be able to sit on a porch & have their water ice & their parents don’t have to worry about someone doing a drive-by. I want kids to be able to go to the playground without their parents getting nervous. That’s it.
Eighty-six children in Philadelphia age eighteen or younger have been wounded by guns in the year 2023; twelve shootings were fatal (Philadelphia Controller). Those numbers increased between the first draft of this piece & its publication, the span of a few weeks. Imagine the experience of tracking statistics over several months to incorporate into the documentary. Knox remembers that with each cut, the numbers needed to be updated. They were not just numbers for her; each & every person was someone from her city—maybe even her own neighborhood—with a family, with a story. She heard some firsthand from her interviewees.
Once you go into editing, you’re hearing these stories over & over & over & over again, struggling with what to keep in & what to take out because you also want to make sure that you’re giving them the respect that they deserve.
Notice that, though Knox worked very closely with the Editor, in the quote above, she suddenly shifts to speaking in third person. Inserting that kind of distance may have helped as she grieved the same losses & watched her neighbors grieve the same losses repeatedly throughout post-production. “I really should’ve gone to therapy after doing this film. I really should’ve, ‘cause there were times I’d just burst out crying out of nowhere & I realized it’s because of all these stories that I was getting hit with. It was tough for me.” Because her team is so small & because she not only directed but also put her producer expertise into the film, she never got a break. “& I’m still—even now—living with it.”
Understand that, despite this recounting of the making of the film & despite its ominous title, Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia is not all heavy.
There are parts that are gonna make you laugh & of course there are parts that are gonna make you cry but I find a way to bring you back up, uplift you again.
The title, in fact, is a callback to a criticism Donald Trump made while president. Knox smiled, “What’s so great about Philly is—within the day we had shirts out that said ‘Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia.’ We took that & made it our own & that’s why I love my city. We said, ‘Okay we gone show you.’ & that’s what we did.”
Knox taking on this documentary has led to her becoming the go-to person in Philadelphia for gun awareness. Though she is hesitant to adopt the label “activist,” she shows up in the best way she can. There are times when she has to step away from the email inbox & the phone calls for a while. She’s still only one person, & she is still first & foremost a storyteller. Expect more films from Knox.
But before that, if you’re in the Miami area, try to secure an on-site movie pass so you can catch the premiere screening of Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia. Showtime is this Friday, June 16, 2023 at 3:45pm \\ O Cinema South Beach! If you’re not in Miami & you missed out on the virtual ABFF Play pass as well, you’ll have other opportunities to view at the BraveMaker Film Festival, the Micheaux Film Festival, the Richmond International Film Festival, & surely more to come.
A premiere is also in the works just for Philadelphia! Knox admits that she rarely tapped on her Executive Producers with requests, even though Mims says with his chest puffed up, “If Kyra wants something, we’ll go to war for her.” The Philly premiere, however, was crucial for her & it’s happening, no questions asked.
I want my city to be able to see this film on the big screen & not have to just watch it on their TVs. I want the nonprofits & these kids—I want them to walk a red carpet & get their moment. I couldn’t have done this film if they didn’t trust me with their stories.