Whose Streets? (2017)

Written by:
Toba Singer
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“Whose Streets?” by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, is a documentary film about the aftermath of the August 2014 gunning down of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black youth, by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri. The co-directors decided that the best way to gain the community’s trust in an atmosphere of extreme distrust was to integrate themselves into the sustained nightly mobilizations by mostly young people in response to the massive police presence on the streets of Ferguson. Ferguson residents were joined by others who were aware of the violent history of the Ferguson Police Department, and who helped to form the organization Black Lives Matter in the heat of the struggle to draw attention to police brutality and murder.

The film’s greatest contribution is documenting the protests to the Brown killing and police mobilizations so that future generations have eyewitness accounts of what happened in Ferguson. Had Folayan and Davis broadened their scope geographically and chronologically, the film could have documented much more on the subject of police violence over the past several decades and the months and years after Ferguson, during which time one after another act of police brutality was caught on video, either via cell-phone cameras or dash cams. A capture of the totality of the impact of those murders and acts of brutality could have painted a picture for posterity showing how Ferguson fit into a larger scheme of state-sponsored violence which took the lives of Amadou Diallo, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, Alton Sterling, Margaret Laverne Mitchell, Philando Castile, Gregory Gunn, Samuel Dubose, Brendon Glenn, Freddie Gray, Natasha McKenna, Christian Taylor, Ezell Ford, Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Yvette Smith, Jamar Clark, Manuel Loggins, Rekia Boyd, Shereese Francis, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell and Kendra James, and most recently, Justine Damond, among others.

Folayan and Davis restricted themselves to telling the story through a shallow frame of reference shared by a shank of young activists who subscribed to the Black Lives Matter ethos. In its initial stages, BLM’s slogans “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” and “Please don’t shoot me dead; I got my hands on my head,” were defensively formulated and spoke to the actual circumstances of the Michael Brown shooting, thereby placing the onus for violence on the police. As time went on, however, the slogans became more general, and more mimetic of radical leftists such as Occupy, with chants like “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” that substituted wish-inspired proclamations and warnings hinting at a “higher consciousness” for concrete demands on the government to prosecute the cops who were responsible for murder. The tactics also changed from defensive ones to confrontational ones, as a shrinking number of protesters challenged cops in full riot gear to fight them. It wasn’t long before rioting and looting broke out or were initiated by provocateurs, and gave the police and the media a handle for discrediting the earnest majority among the protesters.

As part of the ranks of the protest itself, Folayan and Davis had the opportunity to deepen their probe of the community by interviewing not just leaders of the street actions, but those living in and around Ferguson. However, they did not pursue interviews with regular working people forced to submit to police occupation, or live in fear of cop retaliation in response to adventurist tactics that disrupters engaged in, and used as a pretext for isolating and terrorizing the community. The observations of such individuals would have been a welcome and enriching addition to the film.

Toba Singer

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