At two separate moments in Whose Streets, local activists speak to the camera from the passenger seat of a car and are suddenly interrupted by police sirens. Their reactions are identical.
The documentary covers roughly a year of demonstrations and protests in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown. In individual interviews, the subjects in question, David Whitt and Brittany Ferrell, are each mid-sentence when they hear cop cars in the distance. In both shots, the subject briefly whips their head around, following the sound, and stays silent for a beat before picking the conversation back up.
There is a lot packed into these brief moments — decades of police mistrust, fear of being persecuted for being black, heightened senses at the possibility of needing to intervene. They give more historical and cultural context than most think-pieces or reports we’ve gotten on Ferguson in the last three years.
It feels both the blink of an eye and an eternity since Michael Brown’s death in 2014 — and perhaps odd that an event only three years old would already need a published historical record. But Whose Streets, with its intimate interviews and powerful narrative, proves how fundamentally necessary that record is.
The film presents a ground-level look at the protests in Ferguson, starting right after Brown’s shooting. It is not an “objective” film, in the sense of official record — it includes no accounts from police officers or city leaders. Instead, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ film is an unflinching account of the ordinary people who found themselves caught up in the fight for justice following Brown’s death.
The scope of the movie makes it not just a detailed record of injustice, but also an inspiring record of community. Folayan and Davis capture the pain of Ferguson, but also the beauty and strength present as the city changes. Angry protesters shouting at cops become organizers with bullhorns. Neighborhood residents become experts at documenting police brutality. Activists get married and raise children who they hope will be the future of the revolution. The directors also pay close attention to smaller, quieter moments in the lives of their subjects that pay off dramatically later.
The only downside of the film’s thoroughness is that there are so many threads to follow, so many journeys to document, that it can be hard to keep up. Folayan and Davis do a great job of authentically representing people and events, but aren’t quite as good at making sure their audience is still with them. Anyone who’s not already at least a little familiar with Ferguson, and the movement it sparked, may need to do extra research to keep from getting lost.
But as filmmaking, Whose Streets is dramatic and powerful. And as a historical document it holds even more weight. America has a shameful history of sugar-coating and cherry-picking its history, minimizing and condemning the stories that present an alternative perspective from its condoned narrative. (For one of many other contemporary examples, see the great The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution). Whose Streets makes the perspective of its subjects impossible to ignore. The film’s directors provide us with intimate moments that give us more historical and cultural context than we’re ever likely to find in a news report — or, years from now, a history book.
Whose Streets is currently playing in select theaters. The film plays at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine on Sept. 15.