Each time poet and film producer Kweisi Gharreau greets someone he says, “Peace.”
For many years, though, this talented, emerging artist from Chicago – whose self-titled film Kweisi won best documentary short at the Chicago International Hip-Hop Film Festival last Saturday – was devoid of any internal peace.
On Jan. 11, 1992, Kweisi’s brother, James Lemar Ford, (or “Lemont,” as friends and family knew him) was kidnapped and killed, execution-style, at age 17. Born Robert Dunlap, the South Side native now goes by Kweisi Gharreau, a Ghanaian name given to him by a mentor, meaning “child born on Sunday; natural-born leader.”
The film features his poetry, which chronicles the pain and suffering he went through after his younger brother’s slaying, and how he coped with the tragedy. He also muses about black-on-black violence.
Each second of the six-minute short is hard-hitting and to-the-point. In the opening scene, viewers are shown an actual file photo of the gun-shot wound to Lemont’s head. Violence within the black community is invoked when Kweisi himself dons a Ku Klux Klan uniform and sarcastically commends black people for killing one another.
The film incorporates this serious issue but, at the same time, manages to remain very personal.
“There’s this interplay between poetry and past experience,” said David Sauvage, the film’s director. “He’s showing how the poetry came out of the story.”
Lemont’s killing initially put Kweisi in a deep depression, which he nursed through drugs and alcohol. He even confessed to being suicidal. Feeling hopeless for a long time, Kweisi eventually turned to writing as a means of calming his anger and pain. He recalled during the October 1995 trial of his brother’s convicted murderers, Eric Taylor and Jonathon Judkins, being shown the photograph of Lemont’s gun-shot wound.
“When I saw the photo, I had to write,” Kweisi said. “It really allowed me to really go into the depths of my soul and to face my own darkness.”
He began writing voraciously, and also regularly attending and performing at poetry readings as a therapeutic outlet.
“I realized when I did the poetry it made me feel good. I was doing it really to heal myself and to deal with my own pain and hurt,” he said.
Kweisi’s talent was eventually recognized and he began speaking at schools, youth centers and community centers. Writing, though, was not enough, he recalled. Kweisi still was not at peace, even though Taylor and Judkins were convicted. He went to Lemont’s gravesite on the far South Side in search for a way to move forward.
The budding poet reflected on his brother’s life, said a prayer, and made a decision to rid himself of the hatred and frustration he’d been carrying for years – he chose to forgive his brother’s murderers. This, he recalled, is when the healing process truly began.
“That was the catapult of my liberation,” Kweisi said.
He wrote to both Taylor and Judkins, who were being held at Cook County Jail at the time, expressing his forgiveness, as well as his desire to speak with them. The two men contacted Kweisi, initially to plead their innocence; only Taylor agreed to meet with him. In April 1996, Kweisi went to the 26th and California correctional facility to face his brother’s murderer and attempt to gain closure.
“I felt good about the situation, though I was nervous and afraid…I was conquering; I was facing it head-on,” Kweisi said.
When he first arrived to the jail, he actually attempted to forge a friendly relationship, putting his fist up to the window as a peace offering. Taylor accepted the gesture and the two men developed a relationship.
“[I] felt like I had won the championship of life in overcoming that hate and that anger and that bitterness…and it really took a lot of weight off of me emotionally,” said Kweisi, who visited Taylor a few more times until his relocation to the Menard Correctional Center in late 1997, where he continues to serve his life sentence.
Taylor told Kweisi that the poet visited him more often than his own family.
In 1999, Kweisi’s book of poetry, N’nocent Rage, was published. The filmmakers used his narration as the basis for the documentary. The books’ poems and letters touch many issues, including Lemont’s murder, racism and love. It also includes letters Kweisi sent to Taylor and Judkins.
Moving forward, Kweisi’s and Suavage’s goal is to turn the documentary into a feature film. The director said that is definitely on the agenda once they’re able to secure funding for the project. As for the former South Sider, he currently lives in Los Angeles and continues to write and speak publicly about his story – an effort to inspire young people to overcome their own adversities.
Kweisi says he’s finally found piece of mind.