Jon Brick talks about Uncommon Allies, his urgent new documentary on East Side violence
Rosilyn Temple is part of a club she never asked to be in.
After her 26-year-old son, Antonio “Pee Wee” Thompson, was fatally shot, in 2011, she decided to take a stand against the violence that had caused so much pain for her and others in her community.
She also realized she wasn’t alone — that many other mothers in Kansas City had lost sons to gun violence and would also do anything to prevent others from suffering that heartbreak.
In 2013, Temple founded the Kansas City chapter of Mothers in Charge, a group of grieving mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters that serves as a liaison between the community and law enforcement by responding to homicide scenes, comforting families, holding vigils and advocating for violence prevention. In 2015, Mothers in Charge received the FBI Kansas City division’s Director’s Community Leadership Award, and The Kansas City Star’s editorial board named her Citizen of the Year.
But while the efforts of KC Mothers in Charge are well known in Temple’s East Kansas City neighborhood, they remain mostly unseen by the rest of the metro. Jon Brick — a filmmaker and video producer who moved back to Kansas City several years ago — is working to change that.
Brick was first introduced to Temple when asked to help produce a 5-minute video to help Mothers in Charge gain nonprofit status. Two and a half years later, he’s on the verge of completing a feature-length documentary.
During his initial 45-minute visit with Temple, Brick says, he found himself speechless. “The more time I spent with her, the more I realized how important her role is,” he says. “Very few people have that kind of credibility in the community with that level of trust from the police.” That relationship provides the film with its title, Uncommon Allies.
Temple is a dynamic presence in the film, embracing families, joking with small children, laughing with police officers. Privately, we see her shedding tears when recalling the trauma of her son’s murder, which remains unsolved.
Because Mothers in Charge works so closely with the Kansas City Police Department, Brick began accompanying officers and sergeants on ride-alongs, walking rounds and even a pair of high-speed chases. What emerges in the rough cut of his film is a much more nuanced view of law enforcement than what you’ve seen on, say, Cops.
“The police are just a microcosm of society,” Brick says. “I don’t want to make it sound like I’m goo-goo over the police, but the police in Kansas City are a very diverse group, and I think they’re making a unique effort to brand themselves.”
A key to their success, Brick adds, is an effort to be “more human” — handing out baseball cards and teddy bears to kids, staging a flash-mob style electric-slide dance at the Westport St. Patrick’s Day parade, or throwing their support behind citizens like Temple.
One of the most charming sequences in the film depicts an officer walking around Concourse Park, in the city’s Historic Northeast, talking to teenagers, kids and parents, pretending to be terrified of going down a big slide, cracking jokes that even he knows are terrible. It’s a winning, self-effacing performance — unscripted, Brick insists — that could have been lifted from a sketch on late-night TV.
That fuzzy feeling is fleeting, though. In another scene, the same officer appears alongside stunned family members gathered at a homicide scene — the third that day. Brick was there, too, and the experience is one he’ll never forget.
“That changed my life,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep for days. Hearing that first scream from the family members as they find out what happened … that was the most emotional experience of my life.”
Temple was at all three homicide scenes that day, hugging family members, talking with officers, asking young men on the scene when enough would finally be enough. The situation reinforced to Brick how critical her role is.
“I asked her how she does it, and she said she was just running on adrenaline at that point,” he says. “She’s such a beacon of strength and hope for these families. There’s no one else like her.”
As a self-described “white boy from Johnson County” who now lives in Brookside, Brick says he’s troubled not just by the violence on Kansas City’s East Side, but by how oblivious people are to it elsewhere in the city. “I’d wake up and expect to read in the paper about what I’d seen the day before, but none of it was in the paper,” he says. “If the shooting doesn’t involve celebrities, young children or a police officer, media outlets often choose not to cover it.”
Brick is quick to admit that his film does not offer solutions. And while it avoids making any overtly political statements, Uncommon Allies features dozens of police figures, politicians, media experts and ordinary citizens discussing topics such as education, guns, law enforcement, blight and media bias — chronicling Temple’s own experiences and past hardships as a way to explore a wide range of issues. “No one has an answer to fix this,” he says. “What the film does do is make the questions feel more urgent.”
Once completed, Brick hopes to license Uncommon Allies to high schools and universities as a way to spark discussion. The rough cut has already been shown at an event hosted by ArtsKC, which awarded Brick a grant in 2016, and at a criminology seminar at Central Missouri State University in April.
Documentary directors don’t have an easy time finding money, but Uncommon Allies recently gained fiscal sponsorship from the International Documentary Association, which allows organizations and individuals to make tax-deductible contributions to the film. (Details and donation information are at documentary.org/film/uncommon-allies.)
In spite of the film’s often dispiriting subject matter, Brick says Temple’s story is one that can inspire hope and positive action. “If someone like her, who grew up with next to nothing, can make such a difference, imagine what someone from a more privileged background can do,” he says. “It only takes one person to change the herd mentality.”