Students at Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School sing together in memory of a lost friend

Melvin Floyd started his senior project at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia during a rough year. It was 2018, and Floyd and his peers had just lost two classmates to gun violence. Another was killed the year before.

Football star Jahsun Patton, 18, was shot visiting family in Harrisburg. William Bethel, 16, was killed walking on South Street. Fifteen-year-old Tyhir Barnes was shot during a Southwest Philly basketball rivalry.

And the rest of the students at the West Philly charter school wanted to talk about it.

“Everybody I know, personally, has lost somebody,” student-director Floyd told Billy Penn this week. “It’s kind of easier to talk to them about losses because they understand, actually.”

From the conversations, he created “Our Philadelphia,” a documentary that puts faces on the less obvious victims of gun violence: friends of the deceased. Released in mid-July, it was co-directed by Boys’ Latin alumni Elijah McFarland and Kashmir Alston, both class of 2019 grads. Floyd graduated the year before.

McFarland was also featured in the film. He counted 11 loved ones he’d lost to gun violence since 7th grade. Another student, Amir Owens, listed five.

“The whole toxic masculinity thing, everybody thinks that’s normal,” McFarland says in the doc. “Boys should just be tough, no feelings. But when you lose somebody, that’s a completely different feeling.”

Floyd and another senior student were placed in internships with Nora Gross, a sociologist and documentary filmmaker who was then completing her immersive, seven-year Ph.D at Penn. Under her guidance, the piece took two years to complete. Now that it’s out, Gross has submitted it to several film festivals, she said.

“Our Philadelphia” opens with a classroom full of boys in navy blazers, khaki pants and burgundy ties, rocking side to side, singing happy birthday to Tyhir, one of their fallen friends.

The 15-minute film continues with one-on-one interviews with nearly a dozen students. Gross scored a $6k allocation from Penn to produce the project, which was edited by Philly-based creative agency Draulhaus. The final result offers a bare look at how teenage boys, who are often stereotyped as unemotional, talk to each other about their feelings when no one’s looking.

“I think we need to be listening to these boys and taking note,” Gross said.

“Every time we see these newspaper articles and television clips about a homicide, it’s obviously devastating for the families and for the neighborhood, but there’s also a whole community of other young people and the school community that are also suffering in really deep and long lasting ways. And I don’t think we really acknowledge that.”

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“It made me depressed,” co-director McFarland says during the film, speaking about losing loved ones. “It got to the point where I wanted to take my own life.”

“I don’t show emotions,” says another subject, Amir Mims.

“People show how they hurt different,” says director Floyd, stepping in front of the camera at one point. “He might be feeling like he’s hurt but he might go out and do something stupid. But a lot of people don’t see what you’re going through.”

Gross’ research focuses on how Black teenage boys mourn their fallen friends in the context of a school setting. The documentary confirmed what Gross had already found. “People want to talk about their grief,” she said, “and they want those spaces, and they want to be asked.”

At the same time, the film cast a spotlight on a research deficiency. Not many experts have studied how we’re affected by friend loss. “If a teenager’s friend dies, I think there’s a lot of adults in that teen’s life that think, ‘Okay, he’s going to be sad and then he’s going to get over it,’” Gross said.

“I can’t think of any other scenario besides war or the elderly when someone is losing so many same-age friends,” she added.

Floyd, 20, is now going into his junior year at Bloomsburg University, where he’s a political science major. The experience he had growing up in West Philly means he still fears for his own life, he said.

“How can you look forward to a lot of stuff when you got friends dying left and right,” McFarland said. “That starts to make you question, ‘Am I gonna make it to 18? Am I gonna make it to graduation?”

McFarland did graduate, and his bop across the stage in cap and gown is featured in “Our Philadelphia.”

Gross hopes teens’ need for support is a theme that translates through the doc. “We need to be listening,” she said. “‘We’ meaning everyone. Adults, the public, people in communities that experience a lot of gun violence — and people who’ve never stepped foot in those communities.”

Floyd’s focus was more sentimental.

“I hope people just remember our friends,” he said. “It’s not fair to them at all… Jahsun should be in school right now.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...