The arrival of the cell phone camera may be the single greatest advancement in the fight for racial justice, allowing witnesses to hold police accountable and turning the average citizen into a chance documentarian. Grainy footage of police shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a BB gun, or the shaky handheld live stream of Philando Castile’s last breaths are etched indelibly into the national memory, recalled in fragments with each fresh report of an unarmed black person gunned down by police violence.
For the black residents of Ferguson, MO, the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. in 2014 was neither the first nor the last in a long line of police shootings, but it was the final straw. In the wake of Brown’s murder, what began as communal mourning swelled into an unstoppable movement that, as one subject of the electrifying new documentary “Whose Streets?” puts it: “Ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement.”
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The directorial debut from activist Sabaah Folayan, with co-direction by visual artist Damon Davis, “Whose Streets?” is a vibrant firsthand portrait of the Ferguson uprising and the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement. The film weaves a compelling narrative, beginning with the community’s mournful protests in the days following Brown’s murder, to the militarized police tactics that needlessly escalated the situation, and ending with a united resurgence of the movement after the non-indictment of Brown’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson.
Folayan’s presence is hardly seen, but can be felt in the easy shorthand her subjects use on camera. They have much to say and do so urgently, without fear of being misinterpreted. For comparison, Folayan’s interviews stand in stark contrast to the ones conducted by mainstream media outlets (and their largely white interviewers) she chooses to show.
The effect is the feeling of witnessing discussions that only happen behind closed doors. The film affords non-black viewers the privilege of unmasking the black perspective — and how the ignorance of that perspective embodies privilege itself.
Take, for instance, the opening scene of two young men giving a driving tour of their hometown, by way of decrying St. Louis’s dismal school system. “People straight up raising children that cannot read. That’s really fucked up,” proclaims one man. “That shit is directly rooted back to slavery. You can’t read — you a slave. St. Louis, I don’t know what year it is, but it’s not 2014.”
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The camera fades to black, and a line from the landmark Dred Scott Supreme Court decision lingers onscreen: “The Negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” The film is broken up into five chapters, marked by quotations from iconic black leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Frantz Fanon, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou.
With so many subjects in the film, it can be hard to latch on to one in particular, but two leading Ferguson activists emerge as recurring figures. The first is David Whitt, a lanky father who lived on the street where Brown was shot. A member of the Ferguson chapter of Copwatch, a national organization that documents acts of police brutality, Whitt is an energetic narrator throughout the film.
The second in-depth subject is Brittany Ferrell, who is shown leading chants tirelessly along with her young daughter and then-girlfriend, Alexis Templeton. The blossoming love story serves as a bright note against the otherwise somber events, and Templeton’s nervous proposal on the steps of St. Louis’ City Hall is a welcome moment of levity. “Loving a black woman has to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done,” says Ferrell. At the film’s end, she is awaiting trial on felony charges of trespassing, damaging property, and disturbing the peace she incurred while protesting.
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The film is dedicated to Darren Seals, a leading Black Lives Matter activist who was found shot dead in a burning car in September, and Josh Williams, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly starting a fire during a 2014 protest. The dedication serves as a reminder that even as the movement grows, the injustices rage on.
Raw and unadorned, “Whose Streets?” is a documentary in the truest sense of the word; an actual moving document of events fresh in the country’s memory, but never before laid as bare as they are here. It is a vital tribute to the activists who continue to fight every day in America’s unrelenting war on black folks, and it couldn’t have come soon enough.
“Whose Streets?” premiered in Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.