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As marginalized minorities across the country brace for an incoming White House administration likely to push pro-police, anti-protest policies to new heights, urgent, of-the-moment nonfiction filmmaking like Whose Streets? becomes more vital than ever. An emotionally charged account of the ongoing fight of the African-American community of Ferguson, Missouri, to be treated as equal citizens, the film, like the movement it documents, is stronger on impassioned conviction than organization. But it’s hard to argue with the evidence of police brutality and racial bias presented here — a side of the story under-represented in media coverage of the rioting and looting that followed the killing of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr.
Writer-director Sabaah Folayan, working with co-director Damon Davis, starts from a provocative jumping-off point by quoting an 1856 Supreme Court ruling that denied slaves basic human rights. From there, the film zips forward to August 2014, with a tweet that reads: “I just saw someone die, OMFG.” With an energized mix of original footage and cellphone video, Whose Streets? then thrusts us directly into the heated aftermath of Brown’s death, when he was shot multiple times by 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson and left lying in the street for more than four hours.
Folayan was one of the organizers of the Millions March, the massive New York racial injustice protest that followed the nonindictment of the police officer who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold on Staten Island the same year as Brown’s death. Her raw connection to the material informs the film’s entire approach, investing it with an urgency that never lets up.
The director is less concerned with a detailed re-examination of the circumstances that led to the fatal interaction between Brown and Wilson than in the disproportionate response of law enforcement when mourners took to the streets in what began as a nonviolent vigil.
Breaking the chronicle into five parts, each headed by an eloquent quote from a major black cultural figure — Martin Luther King Jr., Frantz Fanon, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou — Folayan tracks each wave of the protest movement. The film begins with the searing tensions of the initial response and continues through the renewed anger when a Grand Jury cleared Wilson of charges. Acknowledging the eventual resignation of the police chief and other key legal figures as a step in the right direction rather than a definitive victory, the doc concludes by considering the path ahead, with community organizers determined to continue to raise awareness, improve education standards and foster a new generation of activists.
Considering Folayan’s background, Whose Streets? is surprisingly light on context beyond Ferguson, and statistics on the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of cops across the country might have been useful to broaden the picture. Likewise, the film could have benefited from some even-handed representation of people on the law-enforcement side sympathetic to the unrest of citizens fed up with racial bias. Indeed, one of the most powerful images is of a black female police officer in a line of cops facing off against protesters, her eyes glistening with tears as activists directly question her personal views.
The documentary’s impact is strongest in distressing footage of cops, military police and the National Guard in riot gear and armored vehicles, shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters armed only with signs, or enforcing curfews well before the designated hour once a state of emergency was called. One observer calls the clash “an unseen war,” and the reported $11 million spent on law enforcement connected to the Ferguson uprising certainly validates that assessment. Equally stirring are the chants coming from the crowd: “This is what democracy looks like,” “We want answers,” “We are human,” “Don’t shoot.” Uplifting notes are struck in the coming together of people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and classes, converging from across the country for the “Weekend of Resistance” that took place in October 2014.
Where the filmmakers’ inexperience shows is in the inadequate focus on a handful of key individuals prominent in the struggle, which could have been better developed to give the doc a more robust structure. The most involving of the subjects is 25-year-old Brittany Farrell, who put college on hold to focus on the movement, aiming to teach her 6-year-old daughter that participation in a democracy is her natural right. Farrell’s marriage to fellow activist Alexis Templeton brings some personal investment, providing evidence of how the mass civic unrest galvanized people, giving them purpose and a more binding sense of community.
Another compelling figure is David Whitt, a father of four who took to the streets armed with a camera in a personal campaign he called Copwatch, tirelessly documenting the city’s repeated efforts to dismantle memorials to Brown on the street where he was killed. Other participants like local hip-hop artist Tef Poe and civil rights organizer Kayla Reed register as major forces within the movement without really coming into focus as people.
Still, whatever its flaws in terms of documentary craft, Whose Streets? is an essential testament to the commitment of activists whose credo is “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” told in their own fervent voices. The answer to the question of the title, of course, is a resounding, “Our streets.” As the Black Lives Matter movement gets bumped from the news cycle and white supremacy groups become emboldened in an increasingly divided country, attention must be paid to rousing, indignant films like this one, bristling with hurt and humanity.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentaries)
Production companies: Whose Streets?, in association with Borderline
Directors: Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis
Writer: Sabaah Folayan
Producers: Jennifer MacArthur, Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis, Flannery Miller
Director of photography: Lucas Alvarado-Farrar
Music: Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes
Editor: Christopher McNabb
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