As the nation reacts to the violence in Charlottesville, many are stunned by the hateful views that lurk beneath the country’s surface. One group that is unsurprised? Black people. African Americans have never forgotten America’s racist foundations, and never had the chance to turn a blind eye; they experience racism every day. Which why is a film like “Whose Streets?” — a documentary about the Ferguson protests, made by black filmmakers for black audiences — must be seen, celebrated, and heeded.
The film documents the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement during 2013 demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., following the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Piecing together shaky footage with more intimate interviews with movement leaders, director Sabaah Folayan and producer Damon Davis weave a tale of unrelenting power that feels like today’s news. The film’s authenticity is largely derived from the filmmakers, and their dedication to telling the story of Ferguson with the only perspectives that matter.
“We made something for black people, by black people,” said Davis. “You wouldn’t get this movie the way it is without having people that actually walked this life… the only way we could tell that story was from the inside out, not the other way around.”
It sounds obvious that black filmmakers should tell the story of Ferguson, but the Sisyphean reality of making an independent film means that those with greater access to resources often get there first. From Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” white filmmakers have long felt compelled by stories of black suffering.
The same is true of documentaries. “A lot of documentaries are told from the lens of an outsider, almost being privy to something you’re not supposed to see,” said Davis.
Another documentary about Michael Brown, Jason Pollock’s “Stranger Fruit,” premiered earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival, and gained attention for its previously unreleased footage of Brown walking calmly into the convenience store he was accused of robbing. Pollock is white and railed against racist cops on major news broadcasts.
Folayan was resolute that “Whose Streets?” tell the story of its subjects from their perspective, without cowing to white-audience expectations. “There’s this assumption that the only reason to make a documentary about a situation like this would be for the benefit of a white audience,” he said. “The challenge that this film gives outsiders is for them to meet us where we are… We want people to do the emotional work to actually understand and walk in our shoes and see through our eyes.”
She accomplished this by following two subjects in depth: Copwatch founder David Whitt and organizer Brittany Ferrell. Their stories put a human face on the omnipresent footage. “The media was devoid of any humanity, and it created a situation where the politics that play out in the public space… are somehow completely divorced from people’s everyday lives,” said Folayan.
Ferrell’s personal journey provided a necessary breather, and her marriage to her girlfriend is a bright spot in the film. “The film needed this moment of levity and joy, because that love is what kept people coming out, and what sustained people through all of this trauma.” Folayan paused, then said: “And also just to look unapologetically at two queer black women loving each other and not try to make it into some kind of spectacle.”
As the events in Charlottesville made painfully clear, Ferguson is only one step toward racial justice. “We captured a moment in time, and it’s not the beginning or the end of it,” Davis said. “When people watch this movie, I hope they’re thinking about the continuum that we are in when we talk about black liberation. Since the beginning of this country, black people have been oppressed, and there has been systematic violence against black people.”
For now, “Whose Streets?” is a vital tribute to the young activists thrust into America’s ugliest truths. Ferrell, Whitt, and their comrades are activist icons in the making, but their work is only beginning. “We wanted to make sure that for once, black people could see a reflection of themselves, and could be proud and happy that they finally got a mirror,” said Davis. “White people get that every day in almost every kind of media, but it’s rare that we get to see black people being complex on screen.”
“Whose Streets?” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.