Jon Brick can’t forget the first time he brought his camera gear to a homicide scene.
“I’d never seen anything like that before,” the Kansas City filmmaker says. “The primal scream of the families. The moms and kids falling to the ground. The chaos.”
Instead, Brick silently watched as news reporters focused their cameras on the victims’ families.
“I didn’t feel it was right to exploit someone at the moment they found out. So at that first homicide scene, I didn’t film a thing. I was absorbing it and trying to figure out how I can portray people without exploiting them,” he says.
Nearly four years later, Brick’s directorial debut showcases how he accomplished that goal. His documentary “Uncommon Allies” explores how the mother of a murdered KC man transforms her personal quest for justice into a call to action by helping minority communities improve relations with law enforcement.
“The message from the film is if we communicate as people and start approaching these issues, it can open more conversations up for change,” Brick says.
His documentary centers on Rosilyn Temple, whose 26-year-old son, Antonio “Pee Wee” Thompson, was murdered in 2011. She dealt with the tragedy by becoming a crusader within her community. She now heads the KC chapter of Mothers in Charge, a family support group whose mission includes “reducing violent crime through prevention, education and intervention.”
Temple says the public has no comprehension of how much local crime has escalated.
“They say they know, but they really don’t understand. I didn’t,” she says.
“As a person born and raised in Kansas City, I’d seen things going on around me, but it wasn’t my business or my problem. But when death knocked on my door in 2011 with my middle child, I learned that we had a big problem. And it became my problem.”
Her son’s homicide remains unsolved.
“Uncommon Allies” follows Temple in her day-to-day interactions within East KC neighborhoods. Sometimes this involves going to as many as three homicide scenes in one day, where she lends her support to fellow victims of gun violence. But the movie also incorporates the viewpoints of law enforcement officers who are working these same areas.
“I noticed there’s a big hole bridging the gap we have in our community where no one was talking to each other,” Temple recalls. “We were talking at each other but not to each other.”
Brick first encountered Temple in 2014 when his mom recruited him to produce a short video to help Mothers in Charge earn nonprofit status. The video went viral, and Brick realized this subject could anchor a compelling full-length documentary.
“The first time I talked to Rosilyn, it just took my breath away what she said,” Brick says. “She’s passionate. She’s a leader. A tremendously hard worker. Loyal. And she has a big heart.”
He gained the trust of Temple and then started accompanying her to homicide scenes. Since she’s basically a first responder, the police would call her, and then she would call Brick.
The officers kept seeing his face at these scenes, so Brick built up a strong relationship with the department. “Uncommon Allies” is assembled from several years of footage he took during these interactions that included police ride-alongs and neighborhood outreach.
Brick says the most revelatory things he discovered while shooting the movie involved the officers themselves.
“I didn’t realize how much goes on in just the 8- to 10-hour shift of a Kansas City, Missouri, police officer. That was another inspiration to show what these people do,” he says. “This country portrays them so poorly … but in all the police I was presented with, I was impressed with so many things: by the way they treated citizens, their sense of humor, their intellect.”
“Uncommon Allies” seeks to raise awareness rather than spread blame. In fact, Brick admits it’s hard to fully explain why so much crime is plaguing KC.
“I started seeing the issues: education, poor parenting, bad conflict resolution, concerns with social media — all those things I touch upon in the film are contributing factors,” he says. “There is not one particular thing you can point to and say, ‘This is the problem.’”
A Kansas City-area native, Brick graduated Shawnee Mission East High School before earning a degree in film and history at the University of Wisconsin. He subsequently moved to California, where he worked at Yahoo News, shooting and editing original content for the online portal.
“I was a one-man band — or a Swiss army knife,” he says. “Having that skill set for one of the biggest media companies in the world gave me the confidence to go independent and start doing documentaries.”
Brick moved back to KC seven years ago to pursue commercial work and develop his own projects in his hometown.
Currently, “Uncommon Allies” has screened at six festivals. Last month, he accompanied the picture to the I Will Tell International Film Festival in London.
“I didn’t know what to expect or how (the audience) would react. But I found out in London they’re up against the same problem we are. They’re having a surge of homicides. But it’s not guns, it’s knives,” he says.
Last week, he and Temple attended the Baltimore International Black Film Festival.
Now having gotten to watch her story unfold onscreen in front of audiences beyond her community, Temple admits she’s learned certain aspects about herself.
“I didn’t know I had all the strength I had and could be the person I was,” says Temple, who was named Citizen of the Year in 2015 by The Star’s editorial board.
“Sometimes I sit back and laugh and go, ‘How did you get that done? How did you say that? Where did that come from?’ But I know it came from God. I’m walking in my purpose. Too many times in life, I could have missed my purpose, to the point where I lost my son. But I had to step into it. I wouldn’t change anything except losing my son, Pee Wee. That I would change. But I would never change anything I’m doing in my community today.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”