Almost fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, a new propagation of activists is picking up the torch of Michael Brown. Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis‘s Whose Streets? (2017) documents the origination of the Black Lives Matter movement from the point of view of the young generation of activists that actually lived it.
From its opening scene, where a camera is placed in the back seat of a car, eavesdropping on two passengers in the front, this film demonstrates very clearly what it is: a subjective, ground-level look at this story; one that often privileges the point-of-view of predominantly working class and poor African-Americans in a suburb of St. Louis. Chronicling action up to a year post the non-indictment of Officer Wilson, Whose Streets? uses succinct formal and informal testimonies to reveal the racial divide that allows for such polar opposite perspectives.
Folayan and David navigate us through the events as they were actually unfolding on the streets, often through the use of handheld cams and smartphones, with only the occasional media footage. The production in itself is arguably not as eloquent as other recent films of the genre — namely Academy Award nominee 13th (2016) — but the intermittent shaky camera adds a sense of urgency to the film. As we watch it, we feel as if we are physically on the streets with these 20-something year olds as they get beaten to the ground with batons, tear gassed, and as they stand with arms interlinked in a barricade opposite police armed with war-grade weapons. Like a protest, the film’s aesthetic is a bit DIY, but that’s precisely what makes it feels so palpable and real. The filmmakers’ choice to record events entirely in the present tense, as action was unfolding in 2014 without retroactive interviews, helps the film in addressing the common criticisms of Black Lives Matter, such as claims of violence and looting. We see a young leader stand up and say, “Hey, I know you’re angry, but this isn’t how we’re going to do it.” The beauty of Whose Streets? lies in its ability to let the movement define and unravel itself right before our eyes. The race and class of the participants is central to the movie, as they help explain not just the point-of-view of the filmmakers, but the movie’s relationship to the rest of American media and society as a whole.
One of the main strengths of Whose Streets? is its ability to humanize the movement. The film focuses primarily on two activists: 25-year-old Brittany Ferrel, a petite nursing student who’s unexpectedly loud voice makes her a deft organizer, and David Whitt, another Ferguson native, who clutches his handheld camera as he remarks “This is my weapon”. Through both of their stories we get to understand the narrative that is often entirely overlooked in mainstream media — that these activists also have bills to pay and families to go home to. Brittany is a woman who gets arrested for blocking traffic one day, and is timidly saying “yes” as her girlfriend proposes to her the following day. The filmmakers captured the siege from the viewpoint of those who actually lived through it, some asking for a calm, measured response, others committed to civil disobedience. Whose Streets? is a forthright attempt to remedy an imbalance of storytelling power—to see and hear civilians who felt misrepresented or ignored at the time these events took place.
While Whose Streets? is clearly an argumentative piece, it’s also not entirely one-sided. The film argues that the Ferguson Police Department was corrupt and systematically racist, for instance, but it also shows us some of the missteps of the movement, namely the burning down of a QuikTrip gas station, an image that flared its imprint on American viewers’ minds thanks to every major news channel. The film does not, however, contain any interviews with police officers or government authorities, which has in turn sparked some backlash among film critics who potentially yearned for a more well-rounded, holistic approach. We instead see warning shots being fired and fires being started, hear Michael Brown’s parents sob over his death and others scream over a jury concluding that the man who pulled the trigger should not be penalized.
The main flaws of Whose Streets?, arguably, lie in its post-production. It’s become trendy in both movies and on TV to raise tension with on-screen tweets and/or texts. Whose Streets?, based firmly on the millennial outlook, does this in abundance as well. These tweets end up taking away from the imperative call-to-action feel of the film, as they’re usually depicted as punchy summaries of events used as transition slides between scenes.
The title Whose Streets? poses a question that extends beyond geography and the political realm to encompass solid journalism and storytelling. When events as profound as the Ferguson shooting and ensuing police crackdown and riots happen, the disturbing witnessing of these acts alone has the ability to shock many viewers. But vast majority of people beyond those on the ground tend to experience a version of reality that is filtered by mainstream media outlets and government spokespeople. The latter are invested in a particular, self-serving spin on events, just as the protestors are. The difference is that the media and government framework tends to present their vision of the story as sober and objective, and any counter-narrative as a hysterical provocation.
It’s a rough, raw film — there are times when it feels like it was assembled while its creators were themselves on the run from the law. But who needs gloss when there is such pressing urgency? A boots-on-the-ground portrait of the aftermath of Michael Brown Jr.’s murder and the sparks of a movement that sprang from it, this evocative collection of testimonies, frontline dispatches and citizen journalism could not feel more pressing. This is a film that doesn’t merely tell a gripping tale, but reminds us that the storyteller and storytelling matter just as much.
Watch the trailer below: