sequence of images and observations in terms of beginning, middle and end.
Spearman says he had to prompt Dean continually. “I kept saying, ‘What’s going on
in your head? Let’s get it out.’” For instance, they often saw kids opening fire hydrants
to cool off. As they watched one day, Dean mentioned a recurring nightmare about
being stuck in a storm drain. “I said, ‘Holy shit! Write that down,’” Spearman recounts.
Dean wrote down his observations in shorthand, “kind of like texting,” and at the
end of each day, Spearman deciphered and transcribed them. The photographer also
began collecting video clips with his iPhone, in addition to stills. “I was building my
case for a film,” he says.
But the first step was developing a script from Dean’s observations. “I almost
don’t shooting anything without a script,” says Spearman, who has made several
other films for The Commercial Appeal. The script dictates what needs to be shot,
and saves weeks—even months—off needless shooting and editing.
In As I Am, the script is Dean’s narrative about the struggle to survive, grow up
and find dignity in the ghetto. It is like an epic poem, with traces of a rap beat that
Dean recites as a voiceover. Spearman and Dean wrote it together from Dean’s written observations.
“I could never say to him, ‘Go off and write something.’ He
would talk ideas out, and I would [write],” Spearman says. “I
could never have come up with the words he used. I don’t have
that language. I could help with themes, structure, organiza-
tion and [the] flow of it all.”
Once the audio track was finished, Spearman spent two
weeks shooting the visuals using a Canon 5D and 7D. Filmmaker
Mark Adams, a friend of Spearman’s, shot the film with him. “We
shot Chris going through his neighborhood,” Spearman says.
Filming wasn’t difficult, he explains, because they had been
around the neighborhood for five weeks with Dean. “You ap-
proach people with your heart, and they respond or they don’t.
Chris has a lot of street credibility. That opened so many doors.
We only went through open doors—only people who respond-
ed favorably were the ones we worked with.”
The scenes include literal and symbolic representations of
the narrative. The film opens with a shot of Dean standing on
an overpass, staring through a chain-link fence at the railroad
tracks below. The camera pans around Dean’s back, to a hole in
the fence and a long shot to the vanishing point of the tracks. It
symbolizes a longing for a way out of the projects, and the odds
Then scenes and people from the neighborhood roll by as Dean
talks about his own hopes, fears and dreams, as well as the frustrations and struggles of people he grew up with. But his narrative—and Spearman’s images—are also about the determination
to survive, the creativity and resourcefulness people bring to it,
and the Machiavellian moral code they are forced to live by. (“The
street’s cold, even in the summer,” Dean observes.)
“These are the people who shape Chris’s landscape,” Spearman
says. “It was all built on note-taking: meeting people, figuring out
who they were and where they lived.”
In editing the film, Spearman left out an introduction and
explanatory context. Viewers aren’t told anything about Dean.
“I just wanted viewers to have the experience” through
Dean’s eyes, Spearman says. He also knew the film
would run on The Commercial Appeal website with a
text introduction, written by Editor Chris Peck, and a
slide show of iPhone images.
Within a month, more than 70,000 people had
viewed the film on Vimeo, the video sharing site. Actor
“It was lucky that Kentucker liked it, but [the success of the film is] about relationships, years of working hard, years of honing my craft. I’ve heard that good work will
find its way out there. This is the first time I experienced it,” Spearman says.
Above: Screenshots from
Spearman’s film show
various subjects of the story,
including (left to right)
Faith Jackson, Willie Jones
and Dean, who is the main
subject of the story.
Below: An iPhone image of
For more information about As I Am, visit www.commercialappeal.com/as-i-am/