[This is a repost of my Whose Streets? review from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release on August 11th.]
I chose, maybe fittingly, to start off the 2017 Sundance Film Festival with a “depressing documentary double feature” of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power and the Ferguson doc Whose Streets? To add insult to injury, I saw both of these films on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and I’m writing this review as Trump is being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. I didn’t necessarily realize how prescient and somewhat fitting Whose Streets? would be, but I’m actually glad I saw the film when I did as it’s less a chronicle of the events surrounding Mike Brown’s murder, and more a snapshot of the birth and evolution of an activist movement.
The 2014 shooting and killing of an unarmed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri quickly reached the mainstream media and sparked outrage across the country. The people of Ferguson had been experiencing racial prejudice from their police force for a long time, so their response was one of passionate outrage. But when the people of Ferguson took to the streets in protest, the police department’s answer was to suit up in riot gear and bulk up on assault rifles, escalating the situation to dangerous levels.
The protests in Ferguson are something that we witnessed in real time, mostly across social media. So I was curious to see what point of view Whose Streets? would take as it attempts to chronicle an event that most of us feel like we witnessed first hand. And while the film—from first-time filmmaker Sabaah Folayan—does indeed cover first-hand footage from the shooting’s aftermath, it finds a solid groove when it shifts focus to the activists who were sparked to action.
It’s made clear in Whose Streets? that many of the protesters did not take kindly to the arrival of the mainstream media to the scene. And while folks like myself may have found it insightful to get news coverage that illuminated what was going on, to the protesters themselves this wasn’t a news story—it was their lives. It’s said many times throughout the film that the people who were protesting have to live there, day-in and day-out, unlike the media and, eventually, NAACP heads and organizational activists who showed up to lend support. In that way the film is somewhat hard to penetrate—it’s saying this protest wasn’t for you, the viewer, it was for them, the people of Ferguson. It has a very strong point of view, and it’s one you may not always agree with. But it owns it.
The film’s greatest strength is zeroing in on a few of the most vocal protestors, most strikingly 25-year-old nursing student Brittany Farrell and her partner Alexis Templeton. As Folayan began filming immediately after Brown’s murder, we witness how the Black Lives Matter movement began from the inside. We see Farrell struggle to balance her duties as a mother and straight-A student with her commitment to her community. We see debates over how best to protest and approach the situation. It’s this focus on the organization, evolution, and impact of the movement that makes Whose Streets? not just powerful in the context of Ferguson, but also as we enter a presidency that many find dangerous and terrifying. Activism has the power to incite change, but activism isn’t as simple as just showing up. Whose Streets? shows that it is a long, difficult, and frustrating path where small, incremental victories must be savored, as big victories are not often quick to materialize.
As a film, Whose Streets? is a little scattershot, a tad unfocused. It takes a while to understand where it’s going, as it introduces characters who fade away later on, and while the Darren Wilson’s of it all needs to be addressed, there’s not an intense amount of follow-up as to how the grand jury investigation impacted the movement. But it is an undoubtedly personal work of art, and just as the message of the film is that the Ferguson protests were for them not you, the movie itself carries a similar air. It’s a story that needs to be told, and is told passionately with love for all involved. But it’s not a story that’s meant to make you feel better; it’s not a story that’s meant to explain exactly what happened, procedural-style; it’s not a story that digs deep into governmental interference, or even the intricacies of racial bias in the police system. It’s the story of a movement. A movement that was born out of grief, frustration, and despair. That’s a story worth telling at any point in time, but feels especially poignant today.