Whose Streets? adopts a broad scope in its portrait of Ferguson, Missouri, after an act of police violence thrust the modest southern town into the national spotlight. On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown was shot 12 times by Officer Darren Wilson, the result of a still-debated altercation between the two. Given that Brown was unarmed and that allegations of the stop having been related to a possible convenience store theft only emerged several days after the shooting, protests and demonstrations broke out for days, and then weeks, and then months thereafter. Along the way, Brown’s name became synonymous with a new outcry from black communities the nation over: “hands up, don’t shoot.”
Co-directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis title their documentary after another mainstay chant of the BLM movement, particularly in Ferguson: “Whose streets? Our streets.” It’s in that spirit that Whose Streets? is made; this is far less an introduction for those still oblivious to the causes of Black Lives Matter and other organized demonstrators than a chronicle of where the necessity of their work came from, what continues to sustain it, and the toll that even those most hopeful for the future have taken upon themselves in doing it. It’s a documentary less concerned with focus than with impact, less with form than with message. It’s composed largely of from-the-scene Tweets and found footage, but the resonance of that footage is more than enough to make it one of the year’s more commendable and essential documentaries to date.
The film’s introduction follows two men, discussing the state of education in Ferguson. One observes that “we raising kids who can’t read,” and both then elaborate on how miseducation, combined with endless cycles of poverty and crime and incarceration, maintains a social hierarchy around the nation. Black communities like Ferguson are left with low employment, low-testing schools, and police presences that function less as beacons of justice than, as it’s described at one point in the film, as debt collectors. The concept of debtor imprisonment is just one of a great many methods through which poverty is enforced and maintained that earns discussion throughout Whose Streets?, and in some respects this confusion adds to the film’s somber message. Nearly every individual captured on camera has their own theory about why things get to the point where a Michael Brown is killed by the police, but nobody has yet found a way to prevent this in a lasting way.
(Also Read: Feeling Ferguson: Now Is the Time for Your Tears)
However, Whose Streets? is the story of several people trying to do just that. Folayan and Davis speak to as many of Ferguson’s residents as they can, but the documentary follows a small group in particular. David Whitt works with a movement known as Copwatch, where locals with their own cameras chronicle arrests in an attempt to capture police mistreatment of the town’s citizens. Rapper and activist Tef Poe organizes rallies and demands that racism be treated as less of a philosophical concept and more as a social cancer, particularly as it relates to well-meaning leftists who don’t show up when it matters. Kayla Reed works to educate locals on resistance efforts, keeping up the demonstration momentum even as the bigger numbers leave town. Tory Russell, a founder of Hands Up United, speaks of the immediacy of decisive change. Brittany Farrell organized the famed St. Louis highway protest, which led to her being put on trial for disorderly conduct, and she and her partner Alexis Templeton work to sustain the protests together. They, and so many others, kept the spirit of the movement alive, even as national narratives conspired to redirect the conversation in nastier directions.
“We held a candelight vigil all day, but that’s not the story you’ll hear.” This ends up being sadly prophetic when, as soon as the first looting begins in Ferguson after Brown’s shooting, major news outlets from every network showed up to document the chaos and the police making their aggressive stand. Yet, even as organizers attempt to rally people in a more positive respect, news cameras are captured expressing more interest in destruction than in the plight of the community. This is a recurrent motif throughout Streets, the contradictions between what’s represented at the national level and what actually happened on the streets. In one particularly harrowing moment, a family shouts angrily at a National Guard tank from their yard, only to be tear-gassed on their own property and told to remain indoors. In another, a white resident of an adjacent town goes to a City Hall meeting to elaborate on how unsafe the protests have made him feel, to which a black Ferguson resident responds with agreement. He’s been afraid for 20 years.
That fear is validated as soon as Gov. Jay Nixon calls in the National Guard to quell the demonstrations and property destruction, and several of the film’s recurrent talking heads note, ruefully, how property destruction always engenders a faster and more decisive response than patterns of police violence. Whose Streets? isn’t interested in a both-sides dialogue, and the film hums with its most powerful outrage when it explores the tactics so often used to quell dissent, like questions of Brown’s character being dragged into the news as a counterpoint to the increasing militarization of the police forces in the wake of sustained, increasingly national protest. To the residents of Ferguson, who speak with a clarity so often denied to them by quick-hit broadcast editing, the protests were not just about Michael Brown, although they were. They are on the behalf of every Michael Brown around the nation and against those who continuously return to light his street memorials on fire as an insult.
Whose Streets? functions as more of an oral history than anything. Broken into six chapters, with an episodic structure, it’s posed as a rebuke to anybody who might question what was done after the cameras left town, to those who wonder what the residents of impoverished communities are doing to improve their circumstances. Black organizers around the city continued their work long after Ferguson faded from the national dialogue, and some of the film’s most wrenching stuff concerns the individual toll it takes to rail against a society that seems to hold some of its most struggling citizens in such low regard. (One cutaway sees a resident discussing how he’s still waiting for his first black president, considering Obama’s measured response to the protests and occupation of the city highly inadequate at best.) Folayan and Davis capture these instances with a bracing intimacy, posing protest as necessary instead of reactionary, a gesture of anguish from people who simply want to live.
As the film goes on, it speaks to that simple vitality at the heart of so many movements. A queer couple gets married, shouting messages of resistance even as they walk down the courthouse steps, tying a moment of joy to the purpose of their work. Demonstrators go home to their children, tucking them into bed and helping them with homework and pressing onward for a better future, for parent and child alike. Whose Streets? humanizes Ferguson, but not for the benefit of skeptics. It’s a rallying cry for those who understand their pain and those driven by that same pain to affect real and lasting change. That many of the film’s “thank you” credits are attributed to various locals’ YouTube accounts is telling in and of itself. This is a story told by those who were there, for those who were there and who live in other towns like Ferguson, with their own burdens and dreams of a better future.
Yet, the need for revolution pushes on. Even in the film’s end credits, a tribute is made to two more young men, captured onscreen, who’ve died since the production of the documentary concluded. That better future only comes at a cost, making its expedient arrival all the more desperately needed.