A viewing of “Whose Streets?,” while very much worthwhile on its own terms, might be useful to discussions swirling around “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s reconstruction of a police atrocity that unfolded during that city’s 1967 riots.
The Hollywood drama, made by white industry insiders, admits no light in its telling of a tragedy and sees its African-American characters as helpless victims. The documentary, filmed by black activists during the events that roiled Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and 2015, just about bubbles over with anger, resistance, and hope. Among other things, it’s about rejecting the mantle of victimization.
Co-directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, “Whose Streets?” is riveting citizen journalism, with all the formal and occasionally contextual messiness that implies. It’s made from cellphone videos, surveillance footage, and local TV news bulletins reframed to emphasize the panicked mainstream narrative that Ferguson was about lawlessness rather than protest. Among other things, Folayan and Davis want to provide an alternate narrative, and they largely succeed.
So while it’s acknowledged that Michael Brown roughed up a convenience store owner (we see the video) before he was shot dead in the street by Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police, the documentary stresses the fact that the officer had no knowledge of the earlier incident, that Brown was called out for walking in the street, and it incorporates Wilson’s damning quote that Brown seemed like “a demon” to him. The film opens with the shaky cellphone footage of white cops surrounding a black body that lay in the street for hours. The divide is palpable between the residents of Ferguson and a police force that seems to view them as less than human.
“Whose Streets?” follows Brittany Ferrell, Tef Poe, Kayla Reed, and other young activists galvanized by Brown’s death, finding in their words and actions during and after the protests a bluntly articulate voice for change. We see looting that the filmmakers take pains to assure viewers was tragic yet isolated, followed by a police and Army presence that is framed as — and certainly looks like — institutional overkill. The effects of tanks and heavy armaments, tear gas and rubber bullets, are shown in cellphone footage filmed under extreme duress, often by people simply trying to get back to their homes.
“It ain’t made for TV. This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement,” says one of the activists, which goes to the heart of why the images from Ferguson swamped social media but were carefully screened by mainstream news outlets to present a story that felt known. Among other things, “Whose Streets?” illustrates a generational changing of the guard in the rhetoric and aims of social activism, along with a growing impatience and a reliance on tactics that can seem as naive as they are highly visible. Closing down a freeway, as Ferrell and others did in August 2015, may have made a statement of purpose while alienating potential supporters in the wider community.
But that’s to suggest that this fresh generation holds out hope that anyone besides themselves will be coming to their aid. “We’re having this conversation but the people who should be held accountable aren’t,” says someone in frustration. When a police report describes the protesters’ call-and-response chanting as “tribal,” a viewer gets a sense of how vast the impasse is between our institutions of authority and the citizens they ostensibly serve, not to mention how trapped many people feel by that gulf.
Within that sense of entrapment is solidarity, however, which is one of the positive messages to take from this film. “We don’t do this because we hate the police. We do this because we love each other,” we’re told. You wish that the filmmakers had extended that love further, perhaps to the point of interviewing an African-American policewoman briefly glimpsed in tears on the other side of the line from the protesters. What’s her story, you may be forgiven for wondering. At the same time, “Whose Streets?” gives us more than enough stories from people not often enough heard, and their refusal to remain silent is invigorating.
Directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. At Kendall Square. 100 minutes. R (language throughout).