AUP. Ep. 24 ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson’ with Jenifer Lewis

AUP Episode 21 (aired Oct 22, 2021)

Transcribed: Cameron Blackwell

October 22, 2021

Cortney Wills: [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to Acting Up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our communities, and our stories. I’m your host, Cortney Wills, Entertainment Director at theGrio. And this week we’re speaking with the incomparable Jenifer Lewis about a project she’s very passionate about. She’s the executive producer and narrator of ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson’, a riveting documentary that examines a devastating crime against a young Black teen who was found dead in his high school gym. You might remember this case about a 17-year-old Black student, Kendrick Johnson, who was found dead in 2013. His family was tireless in their pursuit of justice, and they’re still looking for that justice today. If you’re not familiar with the case or haven’t seen ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson’ yet, I’m going to give you a few facts so that you can follow this conversation. In 2013, 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson was found dead at his high school in Valdosta, Georgia. His body was found during school hours inside a rolled up gym mat that was kind of propped up against a wall in the gym. His mom reported him missing when he didn’t return home from school one day and police ignored her, saying, you know, he was probably just in the streets or with a girl. But she knew that he would normally be home when his body was found during school hours. The school was left open, wasn’t locked down, classes weren’t canceled. Students weren’t confined. They just kind of let the day go as usual and refused to let his mother into the gym to see his body. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation initially ruled the death accidental, saying it was a result of positional asphyxia. But there is a lot of information revealed in this documentary that makes that ruling seem pretty impossible. Seventeen-year-old Kendrick Johnson’s family believes that he was killed by two white students who happened to be the sons of an FBI agent, and they allege that an elaborate cover up has been executed to shield these boys from any repercussions. Writer director and producer Jason Polak spent four years on the film and also interviewed Mitch Credle, a homicide detective who worked on the case and eventually became a whistleblower. Because of all of these really crazy irregularities in the investigation, missing evidence in open crime scene, obstruction of justice from the FBI, I mean, he really believes that this was an inside job and that a lot of people have gone through great lengths to cover it up. So again, initially, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation ruled the death accidental, saying that he basically suffocated in that mat positional asphyxia and concocted a story that he fell and injured himself when he was reaching for some shoes at the bottom of the gym, mat got stuck, suffocated and died. KJ’s family did not buy that explanation at all and hired their own forensic pathologist to do a second autopsy. During that autopsy, it was discovered that all of KJ’s organs had been removed from his body. People in the town, they were reacting to this horrific news of, at the very least, a 17-year-old boy found dead at school with just really weird responses like, I’m glad that wasn’t my kid, and I hope there’s no retaliation. It’s like, why would there be retaliation for a kid falling into a gym mat? It’s almost like they knew that something bad had happened, or that tension had been brewing somehow. And it’s worthy of a mention that this town where this occurred has a really long history. Valdosta, Georgia has a long history of lynchings, of horrific brutality against Black people. There’s a bridge there called the Hanging Bridge because so many Black people were lynched off of that bridge. It’s also the site of the horrific crime against Mary Turner, who was murdered and her unborn baby was cut out of her. So, you know, it’s important to note that because the town is known for racial tension, to say the least. The high school had, you know, video surveillance, and there is a ton of footage from that day. There’s footage of KJ There’s footage of the Bell brothers going into the gym at the time or around the time that KJ died, but mysteriously certain angles just kind of cut out. Those cameras were broken. That footage is missing. Same minute, same time frame from multiple cameras that would have shown what happened after those brothers entered the gym vanished. In the film, Pollock uncovers a lot of evidence that seems to really legitimize the allegations that a cover up has indeed occurred in that KJ was murdered. During that second autopsy, it was discovered that all of KJ’s organs had been removed and his body was filled with rolled up newspaper. At one point, there seemed to be enough evidence against the Bell brothers for a judge to authorize a search warrant, an early morning raid of this home owned by their FBI agent father, and even after that. No new charges. The movie also highlights so many similarities between Kendrick Johnson’s case and that of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 and whose parents decided to have an open-casket funeral to show the world the brutality that was inflicted on her child. I’m warning you now ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson’ is not an easy watch. It requires a real emotional investment, and the images are extremely graphic. When I saw Kendrick’s face the photos of his mangled face, I instantly thought of Emmett Till, and it was clear that this was not the result of a fall that independent forensic pathologists that the family hired determined that KJ’s cause of death was from non-accidental blunt force trauma. To break that down into layman’s terms. He was hit in the head on purpose. This is not an easy subject to dove into. It’s not an easy story to tell, but I’m so grateful that today we have Jenifer Lewis here to help us sort through this. I wanted to know why it was so important for Jenifer to lend her voice and her platform to this case, what she hopes this movie can accomplish, and how she manages to stay in the fight not just for the Johnson family, but for so many causes that she is passionate about while continuing to remain fully booked and busy in her professional career as an award-winning actress. How are you doing, Jenifer? [00:07:10][427.0]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:07:11] I’m good today. I am not happy to be here with a subject matter like this. The family of Kendrick Johnson has been suffering for eight years. This family stood out on the street for five years every weekend with signs: justice for Kendrick Johnson. Now, new evidence that director Jason Pollock has discovered in this documentary has broken the case wide open. Yet Georgia media remain silent. [00:07:46][34.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:07:48] ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson’ has been out for a while now, and I think it’s a really good time to highlight this, especially on the heels of this ongoing Gabby Petito issue and to see what the media and the country is capable of to see such a huge deal made out of this case, where the victim was at the time only missing this girl was missing, didn’t come back from a trip with her boyfriend, and from then on, her case permeated every headline all these weeks later and detail after detail and relentless coverage of a crime that yes, is a crime. It’s a loss of life. It’s terrible. But like what makes that case more newsworthy than Kendrick Johnson’s? Nowhere in that case is anything like what we’re talking about when we discuss Kendrick Johnson’s case. This is a mystery. Like the how did he even die? How did he get in there? How many people must have been involved in a cover up? Where are the missing moments of footage from the security cameras like? It’s so much. There are so many unanswered questions here, and we’re supposed to believe that the public just doesn’t have the attention span for a story like that. Or is it that they just don’t care because Kendrick Johnson is just another Black boy dead? [00:09:09][81.3]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:09:11] I want to thank you guys for shining a light on this case. While the state of Georgia continues to cover up, even without evidence going viral worldwide, they covered this case up, y’all. The FBI stormed the Bell’s home. You know how much evidence the FBI has to have to storm somebody’s house with guns, AK-47s out? And then when they got in there and saw that it was an FBI agent, it was just pushed under the rug, just pushed under the rug. Another Black kid. So what? Well, I don’t think so because I am going to fight till the end until this family gets justice. They took the baby’s organs, y’all. They stole his organs, stuffed him in a gym mat, and he crawled up in there and died from asphyxiation. The most damning evidence in our film is the weight of KJ’s lungs. The state’s own autopsy report shows that KJ’s lungs weighed the normal weight. We have that paperwork. This completely disproves the state of Georgia’s ruling on asphyxiation. When you die of asphyxiation, your lungs fill with fluid. They become heavy. KJ’s lungs were normal weight the state of. Georgia has committed medical malpractice, [00:10:42][91.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:10:44] and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg when you say that his lungs are the biggest piece of evidence. It sits on an enormous stack of inconsistencies, just mind-blowing injustices that seem to have taken place at the very beginning. And that’s what was so hard for me to wrap my mind around, even in preparing for this interview. It’s like, where do you even start? [00:11:04][19.9]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:11:05] You start with the truth. It was another Black boy and they killed him. He was killed, KJ was killed, was murdered and those other two boys that were involved. They’ve been able to just go and live their lives. KJ was on the football team. The white boy got to go on and KJ was murdered and dead. When they exhumed the body. They found KJ stuffed with newspaper. Come on. And then the case went here and the case went there and the case went there, and then they just dismissed it. You know, there were judges that quit. I believe they were judges with the Department of Justice. That’s what it was. And they have a whistleblower, Mitchel Credle, who was sent from D.C. to investigate. He got the evidence. Then the FBI went in. Where are the people? Where’s the case? I need Joe Biden. I need Joe Biden, the Senate, and Congress to call for congressional oversight of the Kendrick Johnson case. We cannot trust the state of Georgia to handle this cover-up anymore. I am really looking forward to going before Congress. This case needs to be reopened. If there is no justice, there is no peace and that family deserves justice. Stuffing that baby’s body with newspaper, stealing his organs. Imagine giving birth to a child and somebody killing it, stealing his organs. And you have to live with that with some rich white person, I’m sure walking around with that baby’s organs. This is the sickest case I’ve ever heard of, and all of these people from the school to Valdosta’s Police Department, they have to be held accountable for this. [00:13:05][119.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:13:06] I remember when I first read about this case years ago, and I remember being confused because when it was discovered that all of the organs had been removed from his body, I thought that what was uncovered was that the killer, you know, like, literally took his organs out. But that’s not what this documentary is claiming happened. They are claiming that during the original autopsy, his organs were taken out. Who knows if they were sold or thrown in the trash like there wasn’t any explanation. It just seemed like this poor kid was disregarded and disrespected. From the moment this investigation began, [00:13:49][42.8]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:13:50] I am so sick of them killing our children. When I get involved, we goin in this is going to happen. They are going to reopen that case because they are live out loud and I am not going to stop. I had that family here in my home for dinner. I looked in his mother. I looked in his mother’s face, his father’s face. They brought Kendrick’s nieces and nephews with them. I put them in the pool. The little girl said, Is that hot? I said, Well, it can be for you. It was so sweet. I made a big southern meal for them. You know them being from Georgia, but talking to them. I never sat in front of someone whose child was murdered. And I hope to never do it again. This family deserves justice. We deserve justice. [00:14:48][57.9]

Cortney Wills: [00:14:49] I think Ebony got sued for running a story, and they even changed the alleged suspect’s name in it. They changed these two white boys names, and they still got sued for even suggesting that they were responsible and their father, the FBI agent. I mean, something is definitely wrong there, right? This film really, in no uncertain terms, lays out a very plausible explanation of what happened or what might have happened. But I wonder, you know, what went into telling that story legally and it being, you know, a case that was shut down, a case that has had lead investigators resign or be reassigned or taken off? Just this case has been plagued with drama from the start. So how did you approach that and did you have any fear or was that not even on your mind? [00:15:41][52.3]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:15:42] The country’s so divided right now say they didn’t. They didn’t know we would exhume the body and see the paper hopes to. What’s done in the dark will come to light. You know that, and I know it burying a human being on this planet that doesn’t have a conscience unless they’re a sociopath. And there’s a lot of them running around, including Donald Trump. Say, I know what. Mental illness looks like twisted, sick and evil. This man on top of his mental illness. You ain’t got to be evil when you’re mentally ill. Evil doesn’t come with mental illness. I should say that I am bipolar and I am not evil. Donald Trump is evil, and he has given these people permission to act out the way they’re acting out. Storming the Capitol for Christ’s sake, the world is watching food. They don’t spit in your food when you go to Europe and anywhere else in the world. The white Americans don’t get to protest what you protest been about privilege, girl privilege. [00:16:50][67.8]

Cortney Wills: [00:16:52] It doesn’t stop with Trump, obviously, we see it now, we’ve been seeing it for years, and the Johnsons are not the first Black family who goes without justice. What let you know that you could do it and what kept you from being scared of the repercussions? Somebody does not want this story out. Like you said, people have gone to great lengths to keep it from coming out. [00:17:14][22.0]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:17:15] I’ve lived. I’m not afraid of people coming for me, girl. I’m from the street and I had a dream and I got everything I wanted. So what are you going to do? Plus, you may shoot, but like Maxine Waters, you better shoot straight. I’m not scared of these people come for me. You got to live with that. I’m a happy girl, and I would like to share this with you guys. What was it six years ago? I was involved in a romance scam and I had a private eye. Follow this con artist for five years. He gathered enough information and evidence called the FBI. They got the third girl. He went to con to wear a wire and we got. He just got sentenced to eight years. I ain’t scared of him. I ain’t scared. Nobody that knows him. I’m not scared of the bells. The Bells, brothers. Donald Trump and his cronies. I’m not scared. If you feel like you standing on the side of right, what are you scared of? What are you scared of? [00:18:28][73.7]

Cortney Wills: [00:18:29] You had a P.I. follow this person for five years? [00:18:31][2.5]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:18:32] Absolutely. But here’s the thing. When the judge pronounced the sentence, Oh, y’all know I’m dramatic, but I’m going to tell you what justice feels like. By the way, he got 50 grand from me. I invested into a fake business, you know, I got no shame in my game, baby. I tell it all. I got no secrets. That’s why you can’t kill me because I gave them all the way. And my second book is coming out. So see, I will live on. Do you understand I’m not scared of these people, girl, that got this shoot straight. Let me tell you what justice feels like when Judge Stephen Wilson, the honorable judge Steve Wilson, sentenced him to eight years. I felt like. A Falcon soared down 90 miles per hour, picked me up by the shoulders, gently flew me to the top of a peak in New Zealand, and sat me down. And as I stood there. Something broke my chest open and filled it with joy. The Falcon came back and he said, Now you fly yourself back home. You see, it is a marvelous feeling justice. But all I could think about was Trayvon’s mother and Mike Brown’s mother and Brianna’s mother, and on and on and on. I want those women to feel like they. See, I have the money to keep an FBI on this guy. You understand what I’m saying. And these women don’t have that kind of money. But I fight where I can and when I can. I feed families when I can. Do you understand? I always quote Big Frieda from Beyonce’s song, “I did not come to play with you hoes”. I came to slay. See Cortney. I’m gonna be sixty-five years old. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’ve lived. I’ve traveled damn near the whole world, including Antarctica. OK, so don’t come for me because you can’t. I’m not afraid I’m going to fight for this family until they open that case. And if ex FBI agents and, you know, Secret Service or the CIA or the marshals come for me, then come for me. [00:21:11][159.1]

Cortney Wills: [00:21:13] Jenifer, now that this documentary is out and people have had a chance to see it. What is it that we as viewers and the public can do to bring this case back to the forefront, especially now when it feels like we are so inundated with tragedies and names and victims and people to fight for? Sometimes important things get lost in all of the trauma. So how do we, as viewers who are moved by this story, help what can actually be done to help seek real justice here? [00:21:47][33.5]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:21:48] Well, first of all, you need to share and share and share and share the documentary. Let the people hear the facts and then go to my Instagram, which is @JeniferLewisforReal. I did a piece called “Did you call him a nigger before you took his organs out?” Share that put directly pointedly, go to Amazon Prime and watch this documentary. Let them hear it. Let them see it. Don’t post it. Once posted 10 times. Get it out there. And as far as it being overwhelming, girl, right now I am literally doing, I think, 25 jobs, including 15 animations, Black-ish. The new series on Showtime. I’m getting my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and I’m writing my second book. I am overwhelmed, but happily so. Let me add that, but I’m never too busy for our children and everybody’s got to make that commitment. They’re shooting our kids in the back. They’re hanging them for trees. They jog down the street, they shoot them, they sell cigarettes, they shoot them. They want to strangle him to death. George Floyd murdered in front of the world. Oh, I called up to Minneapolis to these women who had had me there for my book signing of the mother of Black Hollywood after I saw that young 14-year-old girl coming back that day, going, I filmed it. I’m traumatized and I just was like, I ask those women to find her and get her in therapy, and I would pay anonymously. Of course, somebody had already done it. They it’s that kind of thinking, What can I do? What can I do? Well, take care of what’s right in front of you. Is somebody abusing the kids next door, then call it somebody molesting somebody in your church? Call, tell somebody. Open your mouth. March. You know, COVID, it’s hard to get out there in the streets. But I’m praying that Congress will allow me to come before them and plead this case. I need Maxine Waters and Sheila Jackson Lee, I need Nancy. Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, I need them to look at this case and say, Wait a minute, it’s blatant. The evidence, it’s blatant. The new FBI report that we presented in the film should be enough for everyone in DC to take a look at this case. Mitch Credle is the whistleblower. He said it. We gave them the evidence. They stormed the house. But when they found out he was an FBI agent, they said, Look, you’re suspended. We’re going to push this under the rug. It’s just another nigga. But you, you got to get out of here and go hide somewhere. And that’s what they’ve been doing since this boy was murdered hiding. One of them addressed me in a comment on the internet and said some very nasty things, and all I responded was, I know who you are. Sweet dreams. They don’t sleep. But Kendrick Johnson’s family doesn’t sleep, and that’s what we are concerned about. This is a mother, and the boy was a beautiful 17 years old. And all those people down there in Valdosta, hiding, shamed. They don’t sleep. I know they don’t sleep. It was the whole town damn near. Covered it up, twisted and sick. And you do know that Valdosta is where they hung Mary Turner and cut our baby out. They got a bridge down there called the hanging bridge. I don’t know how these people sleep. I don’t. I don’t know where they think they’re going to find peace. They won’t. But I am counting on this administration to get this case opened and give these people justice. And Cortney, when I tell you, I will not stop. See, they came to my house, you understand. So their family now and you know, sometimes you say, Oh my god, I can’t get so involved. Know this. I am involved in and I will stay involved until they open that case. You are in this. Just like I had that private eye on that con artist until I got justice. I’m the wrong one. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m the wrong one. If you looking to get away with killing our children? Not on my watch. [00:26:39][291.5]

Cortney Wills: [00:26:40] I think that you being relentless in telling this story is so inspiring. But we as an audience and a community, have to be that relentless, too. We can’t take no for an answer, which is why it was so important for me to have you on and try to amplify this story. We have to keep talking about these disgusting, hard, horrific events. If we want them to stop. What do you say to the audience that might have decided that all they can do is look away from cases like this because they seem so insurmountable? [00:27:13][33.3]

Jenifer Lewis: [00:27:14] Well, here’s the thing. I don’t think we’re capable of looking away because every time we get in a car, we damn near fear for our lives now. I just saw this new thing with a Black woman being beat down and she lost the baby. The police just beat her up. So I don’t know what people are going to do. I don’t understand people who look away. Hmm. I don’t want to understand them. I’m going to do my job. I’m going to do my best and leave the rest. I’m going to lead with love when I can. We have to do what Maya Angelou told us to do, “and still I rise.” We have to do what Mandela told us to do. What right do you have not to be great? See, Cortney Show business is wonderful. And it’s been good to me. I’m going to be 65 in January. I got everything I wanted. I lived a dream from the streets to all of this. And now all I want to do is give back and help who I can. So your generation can live the American dream, as I did. It’s a wonderful thing, by the way. See, there were people that told me I couldn’t, but I didn’t believe them because it was in me. You got to find the passion inside of you that stops you from quitting. It’s alright to give up some time. We’re human. But you don’t get to quit because the children need us. Oh, they need us. I was so proud of our kids laying down on the campuses. Oh my God, that made me want to fight more for them. And that’s why I am. What else do I have to do? Lounge on a yacht in Athens? All right. Well, I was there yesterday, but you know. But on a serious note, ‘FInding Kendrick Johnson’, the documentary should be seen by everyone in the world. It’s all laid out how they kill the cameras at the appointed time. It is a sick, twisted cover-up. A Jason Pollock went in there and found those papers and I honor him for it. That’s why when they asked me to narrate this thing, I had no problem doing it. But I will tell you this. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and darling, I’ve had some experiences. They took his organs. So listen, our whistleblower. Mitch Credle explains that he had enough evidence to get a judge to sign off on an early morning raid. Where did all this evidence go? A judge gave you permission to raid somebody’s house. The judge had enough evidence to raid somebody’s house tanks. I saw it! Where did that evidence go? Where did it go? Why did the FBI spend taxpayer money to conduct this raid and then not follow up what happened at the FBI and the DOG? To make this all go away with no accountability? Who did that? Where they at? Well, we’re going to find you, and we’re going to bring you to justice because we can. I’m a showbiz girl, but I’m human first and they will stop killing our children. I don’t know what’s going to happen, pumpkin, but I’m an optimist. I believe that we’re going to be all right, but we’ve got to fight. I’m sorry, there’s no getting around it. And if you don’t fight, it’ll come to your door one day, baby. Y’all better wake up out there. Wake up and fight the good fight like John Lewis told us to. If you’re going to get in trouble, make it some good trouble. And this is trouble. This Valdosta, Georgia. [00:31:08][233.6]

Cortney Wills: [00:31:09] That’s the perfect example of some good trouble that you were stirring up using your platform, using your voice to shed light on something that’s so important. And we are so grateful to you for doing that and so grateful for you to be so generous with your time today and talk about this with us. Everyone listening out there. Check out ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson’ in theaters or streaming on Amazon Prime. Thank you for listening to Acting Up. If you like what you heard, please give us a five-star review and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. Please email all questions, comments, and suggestions to podcasts at Acting Up is brought to you by theGrio and executive produced by Cortney Wills and produced by Cameron Blackwell. For more with me and Acting Up. Check us out on Instagram @ActingUp.Pod. [00:31:09][0.0]