When the streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted after the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, at the hands of Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on August 9, 2014, most of the world looked on in disbelief. The images of protesters clashing with riot gear-equipped police didn’t look like anything most would have expected to see in 21st century America. One one side: an angry crowd. On the other: a sea of cops armed as if going to war. And the unrest didn’t die down after one night. Night after night brought more protesters and more police in a cycle that showed no sign of letting up.
From a distance, it was hard to make sense of it all as cable news mixed interviews with those attempting to explain why Brown’s death ignited such a reaction and connect it to underlying issues — both local and national — with shots of looters emptying out a convenience store and police poised for battle or pelting the crowd with tear gas. Then, inevitably, cable news moved on as the action slowed in Ferguson and other news, including other police shootings, took the spotlight.
Life went on in Ferguson, however, even if the world’s eyes looked elsewhere. The new documentary Whose Streets? offers a ground-level look at Ferguson both during and after the unrest. A collaboration between Sabbah Folayan (credited as writer and director) and Damon Davis (credited as co-director), the film opens, after a brief intro, in the hours after Brown’s death, mixing together tweets, photographs, cell phone footage, and interviews with Ferguson residents recalling where they were when they heard the news, then segueing into scenes from the protests.
Some of the images in this section are extraordinary, benefitting from street-level, crowdsourced footage that never made it to the news, like a police officer sending a woman back into the riots to take the long way to her car, and many scenes giving credence to the notion that the arrival of militarized squads of police did more to escalate the situation than defuse it. Others are disturbing. Looking at the streets of Ferguson from the perspective of a protester, it’s hard to see it as anything but the site of a confrontation between residents and a hostile invading force.
The film is home to some opinions that wouldn’t make it to the news, too, including one interview subject talking about the fiery destruction of a convenience store as a strategic political gesture rather than a regrettable criminal act. Even for those not easily persuaded on that front, Whose Streets? at least makes it possible to see where she’s coming from. When she talks about it being impossible to equate the loss of property with the loss of life, it’s hard to care about the burning of a QuikTrip.
As it progresses, Folayan and Davis’ film becomes less about the events of August 9th and the days immediately following than the root causes of the anger and distrust, the protests attempting to correct it, and the lives of those trying to make sure Brown’s death won’t be forgotten. These include David Whitt, who volunteers for Copwatch, an organization that encourages the filming of police, and Brittany Ferrell, a college student who, over the course of the film, gets engaged to a fellow female activist, tries to explain what’s going on to her young daughter, and faces criminal charges following an incident during a protest dedicated to shutting down a highway.
It’s that moment that gives the film its title, and gives Whose Streets? its central question — even if it’s a question with a foregone conclusion. Folayan and Davis never try to dress their film up as anything but an act of advocacy, treating its subjects as heroes in a righteous drama. That approach can have its frustrations, particularly in the moments when Whose Streets? seems to lose track of its narrative. News of a second shooting, that of Vonderritt Myers, gets picked up and dropped, for instance, and some interview subjects drift in and out of the movie in ways that make their stories feel incomplete. It sometimes seems as if a longer version of the film might have offered a richer depiction of its topic.
Still, a longer movie might not have the same raw, vital energy as this one. Its subjects constantly try to transform rage into change while facing overwhelming odds created by institutions that, at best, don’t understand where the desire for change comes from. (At one point, protesters discover that many police officers have taken to wearing rubber “I Am Darren Wilson” bracelets as a show of support for a fellow officer. It’s hard to imagine that anyone sporting one, even someone who sincerely believes in Wilson’s innocence, could still consider themselves protectors of fellow citizens to which that sentiment could only be taken as an insult or a threat.)
It’s a memorable snapshot of what protest looks like now, in a moment of escalating tension and an era of social media immediacy with little patience for incremental change. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, protesters interrupt an address by NAACP president Cornell Brooks, demanding to be heard to a mix of cheers and nervousness. Rapper and activist Tef Poe, another of the film’s central figures, seizes the moment to express his disappointment with older activists. “The people that want to take the time to break down racism from a philosophical level, y’all did not show up” he says before continuing, “This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement.” By film’s end, Folayan and Davis have sketched out an impassioned impression of what kind of civil rights movement it is, and why new times demand new responses even if they sometimes have to start over again by pushing the most fundamental idea possible: that black lives matter.