When unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014 in a St. Louis suburb, long-simmering African-American rage boiled over. Debuting feature directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ documentary is an on-the-ground snapshot of the anger and activism that ensued in Ferguson itself. “Whose Streets?” is not a movie intended for those seeking an explanatory recap, let alone “balanced” analysis, of the original case itself. What it does offer, however, is a pulse-taking of one community’s response — variably constructive, occasionally chaotic — to perceived institutionalized abuse by law enforcement.
The filmmakers don’t bother reiterating the (still somewhat debated) details of what happened that day in August. They assume we’re familiar with them, just as they assume viewers don’t require basic intel on how Brown’s death further increased the heightened scrutiny and publicizing of similar incidents that had begun after Trayvon Martin’s fatal Florida shooting in 2012. Instead, their documentary is very much a record of and podium for the primarily black population of Ferguson, which took to the streets in protest and was greeted by even more ramped-up police forces using what someone here calls “military war tactics” against their own citizen-employers.
The familiar mainstream media images of Ferguson after Brown’s demise were ones of looting, fires, and a sort of dangerous carnivalesque atmosphere. “Whose Streets?” excerpts some of those TV reports, but also shows locals’ disbelieving reaction to having peaceful protests greeted by officers in full riot gear, often with furiously barking “K9 units” straining at the leash. (This is even before the governor called in the National Guard.) Tear gas, rubber bullets, tanks, and other combat-level tactics not infrequently followed.
Broadcast news showed the damage to property, but not the kind of moments captured by locals’ camera phones here: a woman fuming “This is not Iraq!” as battalions of officers begin enforcing a state-of-emergency curfew not officially scheduled to begin for another 90 minutes, or families being ordered to go inside from their own backyards as troops patrol by. Such extraordinary occupation-style measures underlined a general sense that poor black communities still do not get equal treatment, let alone justice, from U.S. systems of power. While viewers at a comfortable remove condemned the smashing of storefronts as seen on TV, “Whose Streets?” — while hardly condoning such crimes — vividly conveys the siege atmosphere that can trigger reckless, “retaliatory” violence.
Structured more or less chronologically — though its five “chapter” divisions (each heralded by a quote from Frantz Fanon, Maya Angelou, or another major black-identity thinker) seem somewhat arbitrary — this feature is less narrative than impressionistic. Among the many residents identified onscreen by first name alone, a few leading local activist characters emerge, notably young lesbian couple Brittany and Alexis and area Copwatch chapter videographer David. But the film doesn’t aim to shape a particular storyline toward a concise political or other point. Rather, it draws on many contributors’ first-person footage, tweets, instagrams, and so forth, as well as DP Lucas Alvarado-Farrar’s more polished interview and other materials, to convey the full sound and fury of a community pushed past its breaking point, while jazz pianist Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes’ original score unifies the disparate imagery.
White faces sometimes appear amidst protests, but the only white voices heard here are those of governmental authority figures and the media. Both sufficiently convey just why most of black Ferguson (and America) regards those camps warily at best.
The film’s very immediacy makes it far from a nice, clean, big-picture take on the very complicated issues at hand. While we are eventually told that federal investigative bodies duly found ample evidence of racial bias in Ferguson’s police department and courts, there’s no sense of triumph, just a call for more dogged resistance. Though election-year insanity has seemingly pushed “black lives matter” concerns from the primetime spotlight, this slice of living history should have a long shelf life — what makes it almost too insider-ish now will fascinate and enlighten any future generations around to view it as a prime artifact of our freshly divisive racial moment.