James Russell

Perhaps I’m the only one here that thinks this, but holy crap – we’re about to graduate. That’s incredibly awesome and also incredibly terrifying.

What happens next?

My only answer to that question, as I don’t own a crystal ball, is “I have no idea.” Some of us will be wildly successful. Others will not. The rest of us will fall somewhere in the middle. Which one are you? Which one am I?

Again, I have no idea.

What I do know is that adversity and uncertainty can create resolve.

I’m a non-traditional student. Not simply because I’m 36 but also in a way that will likely surprise my classmates, as I don’t speak about these things – but I’m graduating, so what the hell…

I went to prison at 18 years of age. I spent nearly 10 years there.

My entire adult life was experienced from behind thick stone walls and steel bars, my nights haunted by what once was, by what was then my present, and by a future that seemed an eternity away. My days were regimented and controlled. Food time. Yard time. Shower time. Rinse and repeat.

For ten years.

To say that my psyche and my ability to function in society were changed in that period is an understated understatement. Seven years after being released from Lansing Correctional Facility I’m still a failure at anything overtly social. My worldview, molded by a penitentiary mindset during part of my most formative adult years, were originally racially biased and would probably have led to a strong leaning toward Donald Trump in today’s elections (I’m a Bernie guy now, by the way – and more than a little obsessed with this democratic socialist from Vermont who has been speaking truth to power for the entirety of his political career). My decision to re-enter academia changed that. To this day, I credit the two anthropology courses I took at Johnson County Community College as having flipped my understanding of the world on its head. Being shown in depth the differences in people and cultures changed everything for me, and I’ll forever be grateful to the professor who did that for me – A Mrs. Madison Huber-Smith, who couldn’t be here tonight, but changed the world – at least as it relates to how one person in it now exists.

My education at KU continued this evolution for me, and beneath professors such as Kevin Willmott, Meg Jamieson, Dave Lacy, John Tibbetts, Bob Hurst, Cathy Joritz, and many more I learned not only about film – but about the diversity of life and the need to think bigger, not smaller, to set aside guilt and regret and to replace them with determination.

Long before these professors, however, were my parents, Jim and Fran Russell, who watched their son throw his life away, yet always stood strong beside him. Who gave up their own lives in many ways, missing work repeatedly for multiple court dates, dealing with the vitriol of a lost teenager with grace, and then standing beside me throughout those years in prison without fail. They have spent these last four years playing full time babysitters for my son as I attended school, never complaining, but simply continuing to sacrifice themselves for their family. I will never be able to fully express the level of my gratitude for all they’ve given up and for all they continue to do, and I would have failed greatly if I didn’t use this opportunity to say, Please know, mom and dad, that I love you more than anything and that I would never have set foot on this campus, let alone be standing here speaking if it wasn’t for you. Thank you. Ten thousand times, thank you.

Also, my wife, Allison and my son, Jimmy – the patience you’ve both displayed, the faith in me and our mission – you have both been my strength and my resolve these past years, my backbone in its entirety, and without you I would not be who I am, nor would I want to be. A world without you would be no world at all, and I love you both so much for everything you are and all that you’ve done to get us here.

When I look at where I stand now, at those who love and support me, it’s hard to even remember that I once made a cell my home.

But our past is our past. Even our worst mistakes and shortcomings, I’m learning, are surmountable if we’re willing to fight and to climb and to refuse to give up.

To quote Doctor Emmett Brown, “The future isn’t written. It can be changed.” I’ve changed my future, but I had to do so as damage control. Those of you I’m speaking to right now, those that aren’t 36 with a criminal history – you have the world at your fingertips and I both envy you that and am proud already of what you will do with your future.

And now I find myself speaking to this theatre full of people as I finish my education and move on into the world of “what now?”

You know, we are each a constant evolution - individuals who grow and learn and are shaped by our experiences and our perceptions, molded by that which we see and hear, by the advice we take and that which we ignore. So regardless of what the answer to the question proves to be, the only wrong answer is to stagnate, to cease to evolve, to cease to change, or to grow.

The profession those of us in the film program have chosen to pursue gives us a unique opportunity to make our voices heard, make our visions seen, to speak to the world, to change it. We’ve been given a tool of great power, of great influence. Let us hone our use of it, forge it by the fire of our experiences and evolution into something more than a tool. Let’s make it a weapon – a weapon that we each wield against injustice, against bigotry, against inequality and against all those institutions, traditions, and people that stand for such things.

So as we leave our undergraduate careers behind today in pursuit of the future, my hope for all of us is that we pursue our dreams with vigor, stand by our convictions, and use the weapon of film to set the goddam world on fire.

Thank you.