Flint Youth Film Festival director Justin R. Brown brings authenticity, passion to his films

FLINT, Michigan -- Director. Writer. Award Winner. These are just a few words that describe filmmaker Justin R. Brown, who’s made waves for his films and documentaries with his production company MopHead Artistics. But unbeknownst to most, Brown wasn’t born in Flint—he was born in Maryland. Describing a young life as “nomadic,” Brown frequently moved through the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area with his filmmaking father, mother, and siblings before his father landed a job at the University of Michigan-Flint’s PBS Station.

Brown attended Pierce Elementary and became absorbed in the creative cultural scene in Flint Community Schools. Having those experiences, watching his father, and being a mega-fan of The Muppets gave Brown the confidence to pursue making films. Now, with multiple official film festival selections under his belt, along with being the director of the Flint Youth Film Festival, Brown is continuing a legacy and giving back to the community that raised him.

In between working on his latest project, Brown sat down to talk with Flintside about filmmaking, inspirations, and representation.

Flintside: Before we get into you and your life, can you take a quick moment to talk about the Flint Youth Film Festival?

Brown: “This is our sixth year. Our [current] market is between 13 to 25-year-old filmmakers. Our main goal is to get young people in Flint interested in making movies. We’ve been able to have a small following where we host screenings in the city and have an actual award ceremony at the Flint Institute of Arts. It’s quite fun.”

Flintside: You were born in Maryland but spent most of your life in Flint. How did you get into the world of film and filmmaking?

Brown: “My dad’s always been a film person. He made a short film when he was younger and is an independent producer. At some point, he got a job at the PBS station here. So, I grew up around this. I’ve done a lot of stuff working with him. It started around high school when I was helping him out with a documentary. I’d go with him to film interviews and still help him out occasionally with producing and editing. I do a lot of creative stuff with my dad.”

Flintside: What was the moment you realized making films, documentaries, and writing scripts was your passion?

Brown: “I always wanted to do something creative. When I was about seven, my dream job was to be a puppeteer with The Muppets. I read everything I could about Jim Henson. After undergrad, there was a point where I didn’t know exactly what I was doing with my life. I ended up back at U of M and got my M.A in liberal studies. I [went] to England, and I think that helped as well. I did freelance editing and work for my dad. Eventually, I got the idea [to go to] school again and focus on something I’m passionate about—[that’s when] I came across the Maryland Institute College of Art. I could revisit my roots, be close to family, and do my own thing. I made good friends, connections, and I learned a lot.”

Flintside: You mention Jim Henson and The Muppets, but who or what else inspires you to make and produce films?

Brown: “Kevin Smith and the way he does comedy. Mel Brooks. He’s so funny. Saturday Night Live and sketch comedy inspire me a lot because I just like watching people be silly with premises that have no sense and fun for the sake of having fun. Something else is seeing people I know in this field doing great stuff.”

Flintside: I want to highlight your 2019 Great Lakes State Film Festival Award-winning film, Mash Note, which you’re now moving to make into a full-length feature film. We don’t see a lot of filmmakers tackle LGBTQ+ stories. What’s the story behind this film, and was the queer narrative always there from the beginning?

Brown: “Yes and no. I wrote the script my first year of graduate school—this concept of a guy writing a love letter, putting it in the mail and then trying to get it back. We had a screenwriting workshop with [director] Moon Molson. I thought it’d be easier for me to get women actors to do this and thought it would work well. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of queer representation. You didn’t have a lot of nuances, and there’s a lot on the spectrum like bisexuality. So, the lead is someone who’s bisexual, comes to terms with that fact and find out they have feelings for one of their best friends.”

Flintside: Your newest project, Umoja, based on the Kiswahili word meaning unity, is a documentary of a son searching for and reuniting with his father. The trailer is incredibly emotional, and this is also another collaboration with your father. Can you share a bit about it?

Brown: “My dad does a lot of veteran-oriented stories, and he wanted to tell the father’s story and went to interview him. At some point, my father and his business partner asked if they could film the reunion. I came in during that and went to Grand Rapids on the day the son arrived to help set up and other things. I remember that moment. This guy who never met his biological father but grew up in France came to the [U.S.] meet his other family. The moment he walks in, it’s just this wall of emotion. The entire story is so fascinating.” 

Flintside: Finally, what do you want your audience to take from your life experiences and work?

Brown: “I’m not trying to be anyone or anything else. I’m just trying to be myself and be as authentic as I can be in telling the stories and working on the projects that I want to work on. By doing that, I can bring a smile to someone’s face.”

To learn more about Justin Brown, you can visit his website. You can also follow Brown on Instagram and Twitter. You can watch some of his films and trailers on YouTube and Vimeo.
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Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.