The city of Ferguson, Missouri has become shorthand for the ongoing, systemic racism that defines our country. But back in 2014, before the riots and frightening militarization of our police force, there was a community whose outrage was raw and justified. Directed by the activist Sabaah Folayan, Whose Streets? is a documentary about that tumultuous period in St. Louis County, told from the perspectives of those who led the charge against their oppressors. Its unabashed subjectivity is illuminating, since it effectively puts us in the shoes of those who were unfairly maligned by the mainstream media. If nothing else, this film should disabuse people from the looting narrative they were force fed.
Folayan and her co-director Damon Davis frame the narrative into five distinct parts, each with an epigraph that illuminates what we are about to see. The first section is the most difficult to watch, since it is about a family and community in mourning. The shooting death of Michael Brown happened in August 2014, before Black Lives Matter and “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” were not ubiquitous protest slogans. Folayan highlights a few activists in particular, all of whom are introspective and reserved. There are the beginnings of formal organizing: we see initial tweets and calls to protests, long before the city become a cauldron of controversy. The action escalates quickly, culminating with the failure to indict former police officer Darren Wilson.
While interviews and cinema verite vignettes offer dimension to Whose Streets?, the film’s real power is in its riot footage. This is an uncensored, on-the-ground perspective of escalating tension, with a mix of amateur smartphone footage and more sophisticated cameras. Folayan expands the emotional complexity beyond destructive looters – when there is footage of cable news networks, it illustrates how they are out of touch. Instead, we see a woman trying to walk home, cussing out the police through bitter tears. The first nationwide footage focused on the looting and destruction of property, but Whose Streets? takes its time to add crucial context. The footage is suspenseful and intense, but never violent: this film is more about the emotions that governed that period, and how those emotions jumpstarted a movement.
Whose Streets never bothers getting perspective from politicians, police, and law enforcement officials. It is a marked shift from Detroit, a very different film about systemic injustice. At a community hearing late in the film, Folayan stumbles upon several white men, all of whom look like Darren Wilson and indeed wear “I am Darren Wilson” t-shirts. They are presented as dim, out of touch losers. To call this unfair is to miss the point, since the predominant media narrative is present the film’s true subjects as amoral thugs. In a roundabout way, the film’s subjectivity arrives at a deeper truth: we feel the reality the activists must face, in the throes of a country and media that does not respect them.
Like City of Ghosts, Whose Streets? ably traces a line from a few years ago to our current political moment (the film currently has a 2.8/10 on IMDb, no doubt the product of angry right wing trolls). This is Folayan’s primary purpose: perhaps sees time as the enemy of progress, since we no longer think and feel about Ferguson in a visceral way. This film is a recalibrates us, giving a narrative to those who were denied one. At one point, an activist performs provocative civil disobedience, deliberately blocking highway traffic, while another sees looting as a form of political theater. I think Folayan would agree these are not mainstream views, but what makes Whose Streets? important film we finally get their reasons.