Friday Flicks: Whose Streets?

Whose Streets? is a documentary that feels both of this moment and as old as America, both specific to one particular city and representative of a national history of suffering, survival and resistance.

The movie tells the story of the hyperlocal grassroots protest movement that emerged in Ferguson, Missouri after Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, 28, shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, 18, and left his body lying for hours in the middle of the street on Aug. 9, 2014.

Director Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis are not necessarily interested in any overarching narrative or analysis of the history of racist violence against Black people and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, as Ava DuVernay’s 13TH did last year.

Instead, they strive to show what it felt like, and feels like, to be one of the thousands of (primarily) Black Ferguson residents who took to the streets in protest day after day after day in the wake of Brown’s death.

Folayan and Davis culled through over 400 hours of documentary footage, amateur cell phone videos and contemporary news reports shot over the subsequent two years to craft a documentary that offers a stinging retort to the narrative that emerged from mainstream media outlets that by their very nature spent only a few hours or days or weeks on the ground in Ferguson.

No matter how thorough the major newspapers and tv networks are in their coverage, this movie contends, no time-limited reporting can adequately convey the terror and urgency and mutual support that comes from actually growing up and living in Ferguson. Again and again, people in this movie say, this is not just a news story for us. This is the rest of our lives.

 Brittany Ferrell in  Whose Streets?  

Brittany Ferrell in Whose Streets? 

What emerges from the final edit of this movie are a series of images of regular citizens, primarily Black and primarily female, galvanized to protest and organize in the face of a police response that mirrors that of a military occupation.

The night after Brown’s death, protestors fill the streets of Ferguson and are met by armored trucks and riot gear. Whereas the national media disproportionately covered the few instances of looting and arson that took place that night, Whose Streets? focuses on the predominantly peaceful protests, by people whose outrage at police violence trumped their fear of police reprisal.

Folayan and Davis show protestors blocking a highway in an arrestable action designed to draw attention to the nascent civil rights movement, but they also show neighbors in the apartment complex near where Brown was killed as they rally around a sidewalk teddy bear memorial to Brown after someone has lit it on fire.

They show protestors packing a Ferguson city hall meeting to voice their concerns about the death of Brown, about living through decades of police harassment of the Black community. But they also show two leaders of the protest movement, Brittany Farrell and Alexis Templeton, two Black Women from Ferguson, on their wedding day at St. Louis city hall in late 2014. Both dressed in red, with Farrell’s young daughter at their side, the two women are radiant. “Revolutionary love, love, love,” a friend shouts with joy as the two leave city hall. “Revolutionary love!”

Folayan and Davis have cited cinema verite pioneers like Frederick Wiseman, as well as recent protest documentaries like The Square, as influences for how they sought to put together a movie that shows, from eye-level perspective, how a civil rights movement comes into being. With passion and courage and endurance and love, the movie contends, but also out of a feeling that, if they don’t take leadership in the protest movement, their suffering will only continue.

At a glance, Whose Streets? may look like a hodgepodge of video, a patchwork quilt of different faces, actions, moments lacking any single narrative thread. But the episodic nature of the movie is kind of the point.

This movie is set entirely in Ferguson, offering a broader comment on how protest movements unfold through the specificity of its regional focus. But it is also about how everyday people in Ferguson, and anywhere that the black lives matter movement has taken root, can serve not just as participants but as leaders in advocating for their civil rights. The only qualifications one needs, the movie implies, is a devotion to one’s community, a respect for ones life, and a recognition that the status quo is unsustainable.

Whose Streets? the movie may end in 2016, with the Justice department announcing that the Ferguson police department has systematically violated the civil rights of its citizens for years. But the true end to this story is far from near. It is rather an ongoing struggle, one as present in that “Revolutionary love” as it is in the citizen-turned-activist protests in the streets.