Anyone looking for an objective recounting of the events that followed the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, should seek elsewhere than Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ impassioned documentary. If, on the other hand, you want to get a visceral sense of the reaction to the horrible incident on the part of those who lived in Ferguson and protested not just against Brown’s killing but against the unequal treatment they regularly suffered at the hands of local authorities, “Whose Streets?” will provide it. Flush with pent-up anger and pain, but also a major helping of sad resignation, it’s both a searing experience and a thought-provoking one.
Much of the film is edited together by Christopher McNabb from news footage—complete with inserts of anchor people adding bland commentary—and material shot on the streets via smart phones and video cameras, which offer a contrasting degree of immediacy and intensity. Interspersed are excerpts from interviews with activists like the couple Brittany Farrell and Alexis Templeton, Kayla Reed and videographer David Whitt, who shoots footage for a project called Copwatch. So at one moment you are watching demonstrators facing off against an implacable line of police or National Guardsmen armed with advanced riot gear, and at another a man carefully describing the cache of various projectiles he’s collected from those shot at the crowd by the supposed peace-keepers, or protesting when a memorial to Brown is burned, and later simply torn down and carted away.
We see Wilson being interviewed on TV by George Stephanopoulos, who stares back incredulously as the ex-cop describes Brown looking like a “demon,” juxtaposed with the comments of Brown’s mother about being kept from her son’s body on the street and the reaction of onlookers when a grand jury declines to indict Wilson in Brown’s death. We hear the denials of the Ferguson police chief of any racism on his force contrasted with conclusions reached by Justice Department investigations about arrest records in the city, as well as the measured words of President Obama and Attorney General Holder contrasted with the declaration of rapper Tef Poe at a community rally that this is no longer your daddy’s civil rights movement.
Folayan and Davis suggest an orderliness to their presentation of the Ferguson debacle by dividing the film into five chapters, each introduced by a quotation from a major figure in the struggle for recognition of black dignity—Martin Luther King, Jr., Frantz Fanon, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou—but the film is more of an immersive mosaic. It makes no pretense of offering a chronologically precise narrative, or of situating what happened in Missouri within the larger movement of which it has come to be one sad episode, or even of investigating in any substantive way the details of the shooting, about which arguments continue to rage on both sides, from portraying Brown simply as a innocent victim of police violence to arguing that he was some sort of dangerous criminal.
Instead, by offering a “you-are-there” portrait of Brown’s death exclusively from the perspective of those trapped in the environment in which he died, “Whose Streets?” manages to convey, in some small measure, the reality of what it feels like to live in a situation of systemic oppression, in which a neighbor can be killed by a policeman with apparent impunity while another man can be sentenced to an eight-year prison term for starting a fire during a protest, where even traffic laws are unequally enforced, depending on the driver’s race. (As demonstrator Kayla Reed observes, how much more do we value property than human life?) Stepping vicariously into the world the film captures, raggedly but effectively, will be an uncomfortable experience for many viewers, but one more Americans need to have if our social problems are ever to be honestly addressed.