Events that go undocumented can be lost to history forever. From news cameras to cellphones, honestly handled footage from the scene of conflict can offer a street-level view of what happened, how and to whom.
The scalding documentary “Whose Streets?” turns many lenses on the uprising in Ferguson, Mo., a northern suburb of St. Louis, after police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old whose only discernible offense was walking down the center of Canfield Drive. For at least four hours after being gunned down, his body lay in the middle of the bloodstained street, sprawled in plain view.
Nationwide there are too many fatal clashes with police to remember them all, but Brown’s death in August 2014 was different. The community protests and militarized police response lifted the event to a level hard to forget. It launched the grass-roots birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, founded to further the basic American ideal that all people are created equal.
In “Whose Streets?” director Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis skillfully and openly use their unflinching documentary to back that cause. They push past the images familiar from mainstream national news coverage, which day after day focused on property damage, arson and ransacked stores. While “Whose Streets?” shows those events in uncharitable detail, it reveals something else. The filmmakers captured the siege from the perspective of the people who lived through it, some calling for a calm, measured response, others committed to direct action and civil disobedience. Many risk their lives to block a highway.
The 100-minute film follows a 16-month timeline from Brown’s death. It is a powerful mix of emotional first-person interviews with neighborhood residents, on-site scenes captured by the filmmakers themselves, and sometimes terrifying found footage recorded during the uprising. From scores of mobile phone videos, we see the peaceful protests and candlelit evening vigils that were the initial response to the tragedy.
When a grand jury failed to indict Wilson for Brown’s death, many citizens took their anger to the streets, and police in riot gear with tear gas, attack dogs, flash grenades, rubber bullets and military vehicles, along with National Guard troops armed with combat weapons, descended to box in and control Ferguson — an occupation one activist terms an “unseen war.”
There are moments of the bitterest irony recorded in this time capsule. Gathered beside a street banner reading “Season’s Greetings,” protesters are confronted by an armored vehicle firing tear-gas grenades at them. Standing behind a chain-link fence around a house as an officer directs everyone to go home, one resident shouts back, “I live here. This is my house.” The police response is more tear-gas canisters.
As some characters reappear and evolve throughout various conversations, the most intriguing might be Brittany Farrell, a single mother and nursing student in her mid-20s. Devoted to her daughter, she explains that she will help her child learn the importance of protesting injustice. As we learn more about her, one snippet of information at a time, we learn that she has a much deeper personal story than we might have assumed. It’s a telling reminder that what we think we see often says more about our preconceptions than the genuine facts. Watch this powerful film and learn.