Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know J.M. Harper, the Director of “As We Speak”

By Bailey Pennick

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our ongoing series: Give Me the Backstory!

As We Speak, a film that premiered as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, might be J.M. Harper’s debut feature, but 2024 is far from his first foray into the world of Sundance.

“I had the pleasure of editing Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, a short documentary by directors Rubberband and Topaz Jones that won the Short Film Jury Award: Nonfiction at [the 2021 Sundance Film Festival], and jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy by Coodie and Chike, which premiered at [the 2022 Sundance Film Festival],” the documentarian says when asked about his history with the Sundance Institute. Even with these two editing projects as part of the Festival’s 40-year history, Harper knows that this one is special for him. 

“Both [of those] were pandemic years for the Festival, so this is my first Sundance in person and my first feature documentary as director. I wanted the film to premiere at a Festival that understood how important the issue is and how special Kemba is as a person. I’m thrilled and honored that the Sundance programmers felt the film worthy of this amazing platform.”

This deep well of knowledge and appreciation for his subjects and his craft is par for the course for Harper, who dove straight into filmmaking after college when he was inspired: “After graduating Princeton, I answered a Craigslist ad from a drug dealer to shoot an unpaid documentary about ‘youth culture,’ in West Africa, which introduced me to the world of Senegalese pirates and underground protest hip-hop. He covered my room and board, so I took the offer (without asking too many questions) and never stopped making documentaries after that.”

Jump in with Harper to learn more about the process and inspiration behind As We Speak below.

Kemba and 'As We Speak' director J.M. Harper chat with the audience during the film's Q&A. Photographer: Chloe Collyer

Why does this story need to be told now?

The story needs to be told now because our constitutional freedom of speech is being hollowed out by prosecutors. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of artists have been incarcerated, their artistic expression reduced to “evidence.” For decades, prosecutors have misrepresented rap music to judges and juries, collapsing the art form’s complex blend of fact and fiction into mere “autobiography” for the sake of securing convictions. Prosecutors even receive training on how to play up racist stereotypes about rap music. For the (mainly Black and Latino) young men who find themselves on trial with a public defender, the introduction of rap lyrics nearly guarantees a conviction. With the odds stacked so dramatically against any defendant in criminal court (whether innocent or guilty), 98% of defendants take plea bargains — accepting guilt and a finite time in prison rather than risking decades or life behind bars.

What was a big challenge you faced while making As We Speak?

When we first started, we thought we’d need a cast of well-known rappers in order for the film to gain traction. Many superstars (Jay Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean) had supported the failed legislation in New York to stop prosecutors from misusing rap lyrics as evidence, so we knew the issue was on their radar. However, in the process of making the film, we learned to embrace the reality that the rap artists who were still “in the trenches” were the ones most willing to talk about their predicament. So, the challenge was just getting out of the way of the film and acknowledging that it wanted to be about the people closest to the ground — not about rappers who have immense resources to fight the state. Often the people who materialized only hours before an interview made for the most stunning voices in the documentary. 

Your favorite part of making the film? Memories from the process?

The memories of making this film all revolve around Kemba — listening to him navigate the conversations, watching his presence grow through the viewfinder. I see him as the James Baldwin of this generation, so I felt the responsibility of encoding my respect for him into the DNA of each scene. 

I also enjoyed working with two wonderful cinematographers (Logan Triplett and Allison Anderson Triplett) to mix film formats and aspect ratios to create the distinct language of A/B/C threads of the film. As a former editor, the challenge of achieving the more ambitious editorial moves during the editing process with Emma Backman and Gabriela Tessitore made for great memories. Reviewing the early cuts with my former co-editor, Max Allman (an Executive Producer on this documentary), kept us adventurous and ambitious when scenes were still finding their legs; he’s one of the most talented minds working today in cinema, for sure.

What was the biggest inspiration behind this film?

The book Rap on Trial: Race Lyrics and Guilt in America by Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis originally inspired the film. After I read the foreword by Killer Mike, I knew I could tell the story in a unique way — as an experimental art film and issue film — from the artist’s point of view.

Describe who you want As We Speak to reach.

Hopefully the film reaches the rap artists who see themselves reflected in Kemba’s character. It should also reach people who consume hip-hop but aren’t aware of its war with the criminal justice system. Finally, it should reach people who couldn’t care less about hip-hop or rap artists but do care about our freedoms of speech and the necessity of protecting America’s most profound storytellers. 

Films are lasting artistic legacies; what do you want yours to say?

The film has a language that will, I hope, test the boundaries of the documentary genre and push the form forward — the same way rap lyrics transformed English vernacular. In terms of legacy, my generation’s news stories already arrive via algorithm, and we can see the fuzzy but imminent arrival of artificial intelligence in cinema. So, I think a critique of recorded “fact” — of documentary itself — should be as much a part of the things we make as the things themselves. It’s not necessarily new; Brecht used this self-referential, fourth-wall-breaking method in theater (and Godard in film), but they aim to distance the audience from emotional involvement, whereas I intend to draw them closer. 

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