Filming in Ferguson: 100 days | 100 seconds

Christopher Phillips

In his 100-second documentary, Ferguson resident and filmmaker Christopher Phillips captures the first 100 days in Ferguson since the death of Michael Brown.

The BJS asked a diverse group of scholars and activists to contribute their perspectives on the Black Lives Matter movement. All essays can be found here

I was setting up to film a project for my company, Maverick Media, a film, advertisement, and marketing company, when Michael Brown Jr. was killed. My phone lit up throughout the day, with people letting me know about a young man killed in my apartment complex. I did not have many details. Unfortunately, I have grown numb to the news of yet another member of the African American community in St. Louis getting shot and killed. It wasn’t until the following day, when I witnessed the hundreds of people gathering in my apartment complex, that I had to pull out my camera. I was supposed to be at a meeting, but I postponed it.

In the neighborhoods of St. Louis where I was raised, we are accustomed to negative experiences with law enforcement. The stops, searches, unwarranted accusations, the list is extensive. In some areas, we also commonly see the teddy bear memorials on lampposts and street signs. But rarely are there gatherings of hundreds of people. The fact that crowds of people formed made me realize that the circumstances of this particular death had to be so heinous and outrageous that it was worth documenting. Then I spoke to my neighbors. The outrage. The statements that “He had his hands up!” which would be the inception of the proverbial and monumental chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” More facts. His body lay on the street, in the humid and blazing St. Louis summer heat, for four and a half hours. That fact alone lives up to expectation that the people in my community and others that are predominantly African-American have in regards to the police; that our humanity is not respected the same way as that of someone who is white/Caucasian. Take all of the circumstantial facts away and still, he cooked in the street for over four hours. Soon afterwards, many took to West Florissant to peacefully protest…

…and a small few looted.

Watching the destruction first hand was heartbreaking, but I knew that it was critical to film these moments. It was hard to sit back like a reporter and remain objective. There were a few moments where I turned off the camera to prevent someone from doing something drastic in front of my eyes. Local resources like the meat market, auto parts stores, and the QuikTrip were instantly looted and damaged. This makes no difference to the outsiders that came in and destroyed the town, but to the local residents without a vehicle, after midnight that QuikTrip served as the 24-hour grocery store. For many on the West Florissant corridor, whatever last minute, late night items the people needed, that was where they went for them.

As a resident of Ferguson, I was able to gain access and talk to people that other mainstream media could not. In the process of the mayhem and destruction that took place in the first two days, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer was assaulted and his camera taken. Yet, at the same time, by the good Lord’s grace, I escaped harm. I also had to be wise by filming discreetly, but there is also this unknown variable that when someone in the community sees me, it’s like a reflection of self, and that makes a difference. When it came to the interviews, I just let my heart speak and was honest about my intentions. This opened up a plethora of doors and the work I released months later backed up my words.

The delivery of information through media can influence the interpretation of the events. But I knew my community was not being represented or given a voice

Making a film, no matter the genre, is an undertaking of the utmost importance. Unlike a piece used to generate revenue in a mainstream format, this is a responsibility. With the growth of media and its distribution channels, filmmaking can be a powerful way to perpetuate and dictate the messages we receive in our communities. The delivery of information through media can influence the interpretation of the events. But I knew my community was not being represented or given a voice. Through the observations of residents and through my own interviews, Ferguson was being made to look like a cesspool of crime, filled with section-8 residents, an image that bothered my neighbors. Those depictions influenced the public perceptions of the residents, and news outlets have taken a negative angle with their reporting. For these reasons, local business owners refused to talk to the media. They pointed out the loss in business because the networks continued to show imagery of a destructive Ferguson long after the few days the looting took place, thus deeming the area “unsafe,” contrary to the state of what it really was.

Film gave me the opportunity to shed light on these issues. A key component of my professional work is my use of marketing strategies and timing to help push a project forward. So as we approached the 100th day with no grand jury decision, I wanted to use that significant number to create a short prelude to my full-length film. This is how I came up with “Ferguson: 100 Days | 100 Seconds.”

As simple as it sounds, encapsulating the tumultuous first 100 days since Brown’s death in only 100 seconds was a tough task. I thought the title would catch attention, and the short time commitment to watch would also help in a world where attention spans are becoming increasingly shorter. My goal was to be completely honest, yet show the scope of everything that was going on. So at 35 seconds into the video, a woman speaks about how she was shot by the police several times with no justice by law enforcement. This scene was followed by a man in tears demanding that murder charges be brought against Darren Wilson.

The very next shot was the looting. From an aesthetic approach, this sequence of shots, which is chronologically how it occurred, reminds me of a ‘cause and effect’ scenario. However, the events of that day were not necessarily why some looted businesses. As someone who directly observed these events, I know that the people who participated in the looting were few in numbers, and took advantage of an unstable situation. But looking at whole piece, there are other, more important conclusions you can draw from it. For instance, the diversity of the ethnic makeup of protestors was important for me to show. After all, this movement was spearheaded by a majority of young African-American residents who took a stand, but it became a global movement when people of all walks of life stood up to seek justice.

This movement was spearheaded by a majority of young African-American residents who took a stand, but it became a global movement when people of all walks of life stood up to seek justice

I also made a clear point to show the amount of time that passed without the grand jury decision: you see the backdrop change from warm summer weather to cold near the conclusion of the piece. Moreover, the election campaign sign at 1:34 was potent because of its multiple messages. A) Election season comes late fall early winter, and the people were waiting for results, B) Bob McCulloch’s handling of the case infuriated people making any of his allies guilty by association, and C) the overall importance of voting, and it’s connection to the Michael Brown case. All of the top political leaders involved in the case—including the mayor, city manager, judge, and prosecuting attorney—were all white. My community understood that this had everything to do with the way things were being handled. The bigger question is, how, in a municipality where 67% of the 21,000 residents are African-American, could this happen?

Through the course of my work over the last year, he most startling things that I noticed is the disenfranchised grief my neighbors have experienced because some residents on the other side of Ferguson, and some that are even further removed, deny that a problem even exists. Even the mayor of our municipality told MSNBC in August 2014 that there was “not a racial divide” in Ferguson. It took an uprising and a Department of Justice report for him to realize that this was simply not true, and it illustrated how disconnected he was from his community. With that said, there is beauty in ‘100 Days’, because of the rawness, authenticity, texture, and emotional draw that made it such a dynamic piece.

Prior to Brown’s death, my trip home was quite a depressing one. Within two or three miles, you noticed this intensified police presence. Take this scenario. Three miles out, on random nights, neighboring Velda City sets up “sobriety checkpoints” where they had a fleet of tow trucks waiting. They never checked to see if we were intoxicated; they just ran our plates and made sure we had up-to-date insurance. Two miles out, several radar traps with patrol cars await you in both directions down Lucas and Hunt road heading north to West Florissant. Make a left on West Florissant where there is also a red light camera, there always two to three stops before you pass the Northland Shopping Center. I don’t understand the reason for the stops, but it was not uncommon to see handcuffed people on the sidewalks.

So then we get to the infamous strip where the initial August 10th standoff occurred… half a mile from my house. Two Ferguson police SUVs were left in Sam’s Meat Market parking lot and if not there, they would be in Red’s Barbecue when I made the right turn into Canfield. As residents, we knew what was going on: this was for the all-mighty dollar. Sadly, it took an uprising following Brown’s death to spark a Department of Justice investigation into these conditions. In the report, you find out that a year and a half prior to Brown’s death, the City Manager congratulated the then-Police Chief (both of whom have since resigned) by saying “Awesome! Thanks!” on passing the $2 million mark for the first time ever on law enforcement revenue, and that is not including red light camera enforcement.

The town is still torn about these findings. After all, all of this happened on the mayor’s watch, and he will not step down. These reports are shared with him and the city council, and although three of his accomplices resigned, he refuses to do so. From the perspective of the people, it seems that real change will never happen. I often use the analogy of weeds in the garden when speaking to people about it: you can pull several of them up, but even if just one manages to survive, it has the potential to grow and take over your garden again. The same officers that wrongfully arrested protestors, and contributed to this problem still work for the Ferguson Police Department. The weeds are still there.

I often use the analogy of weeds in the garden when speaking about real change: you can pull several of them up, but even if just one manages to survive, it has the potential to grow and take over your garden again

It is incredible that not only do the people know these police officers by face, but also by name. Not because they had a casual conversation about the Cardinals baseball game on a random afternoon, but through personal encounters with them at stops and arrests as well as the continuous stories about others’ encounters. Add to this the fact that some of the same antics continue to this day. The police have since backed down slightly on hot spot patrolling. However, they have been replaced by random acts of enforcement, such as the wrongful ambush of arrests that occurred on February 9th, 2015 when myself and a five others were arrested. Yes, I too was locked up while filming from the sidewalk. When I was released, my camera was returned inoperable and someone from the Ferguson Police Department took a sharp object and scraped my media card’s terminal connection pins, which obviously was a clear attempt to delete my footage. As a result, I spent hundreds of dollars to get my camera fixed. When stories spread about how even a filmmaker who was just documenting a small protest of 10 people was not safe, it drives an even deeper wedge between the police and the community.

I believe the world will never forget the aftermath from Mike Brown’s death. On a personal note, it was more validation into how God works. I wanted to move away from Canfield years ago, but I was always delayed for some reason, and it never happened. So me, being here at this moment in history, was by His design. I have worked tireless nights and exhausted lots of resources and finances to bring this story to the world. Something that I like to tell people is that my goal for people when they watch my film is that they get it. I would like to see someone far away, on, another continent to get it. By displaying the systemic­­­­­­ issues of the region that contributed to this problem, I can be part of the solution. Everyone has to play their part in change, from our workplaces, to the frontlines, to our homes. I found my battlefront, and it is through the camera lens…

To view the trailer to Christopher Phillip’s film, Ferguson 365, see https://vimeo.com/145344393.


Christopher Phillips is a cinematographer and a resident of the Canfield Green apartment complex in Ferguson – the location of Mike Brown’s death. He has produced two short documentaries about the Black Lives Matter protests, "100 days | 100 seconds" and "Ferguson 365".