Akewi Barnes in a scene from "JustUS: Living with a Criminal Record."
Akewi Barnes in a scene from "JustUS: Living with a Criminal Record." (HANDOUT)

Baltimore filmmaker Mecca Amoni Michele Lewis and her partner Erin Gaddis' six-minute film on the difficulty of everyday life after serving time in jail, won the "Champions for Justice" short-film competition at last weekend's NAACP national convention.

The film, "JustUS: Living with a Criminal Record," features Akewi Barnes, identified as a poet and yoga instructor, talking about the poetry he has been writing since being released from prison, where he says he was sent as a 16-year-old for attempted murder. Barnes also reads his poem, "Letter to My Younger Self."


Kisha Webster, president of the Greenmount Community Association, is also featured in the film, talking about the difficulties faced by ex-felons as they struggle to re-enter society outside the prison walls. "I want people to know that formerly incarcerated people are just that — formerly," she stresses at one point.

"JustUS" was one of three films competing for the prize of $7,500 to create an "extended documentary" that will air on ShortsTV, which created the "Champions for Justice" program with the NAACP. Each of the three films was created by a two-person team , with one each addressing the subjects of police violence (one of the filmmakers working on that topic was Shaqueal Wilson, also of Baltimore), the "school-to-prison pipeline" and living with a criminal record.

As some question the relevance of the NAACP, the civil rights group's leader said its activist spirit remains as important today as it ever was.

The films were made during the opening days of the NAACP convention, which ran July 22-26 at the Baltimore Convention Center. Those who attended the convention were able to watch the films and vote on their favorite.

Lewis, a Baltimore School for the Arts graduate who lives in West Baltimore, said she and Gaddis had four days to make the film. She knew Webster, and heard about Barnes through contacts with Baltimore Youth Arts, a program that focuses on arts education and job kills for young people — especially those touched by the criminal justice system.

"We ran around and interviewed a few people at the convention," she said, "but eventually we ventured off and highlighted a few people who weren't part of the convention."

Lewis, 18, is an incoming student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. She studied visual arts at BSA and worked on the pilot program for the film track that the school will begin offering in the coming academic year.

Gaddis is a graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Lewis said she and Gaddis hope to use the prize money to make a documentary film about people doing research in the field of transitioning from incarceration to life on the outside.


6:32 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from Mecca Amoni Michele Lewis.

This article was originally published at 1:10 p.m.