You might think for a nanosecond that, after seeing footage of the protests and push-back in Ferguson, Missouri, played in TV-news loops during the back half of 2014, those images might have lost the ability to shock or stun you. And then you bear witness to the scenes of cacophony and chaos in Whose Streets?, the extraordinary documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis – the tear gas and the tanks and bodies being slammed down on the ground – and your rage starts to play catch-up to the rage emanating from behind the camera. A boots-on-the-ground portrait of the aftermath of Michael Brown Jr.’s murder and the sparks of a movement that sprang from it, this impressionistic collection of testimonies, frontline dispatches and citizen journalism could not feel more essential. Whether it’s the “best” documentary of 2017 is a matter of opinion. But it is assuredly the most vital.
Having become frustrated with the media’s coverage of what was actually happening in the St. Louis suburb after the unarmed 18-year-old was shot by cops under questionable circumstances, Folayan and Davis (along with photographer-turned-cinematographer Lucas Alvarado-Farrar) began to document how locals were reacting to the semi-police state in their own backyard. You-are-there social media verité is incorporated to add extra layers. We see warning shots being fired and fires being started, hear Michael Brown’s parents sob over his death and others scream over a jury concluding that the man who pulled the trigger should not be penalized. (The clip the filmmakers show of Darren Wilson telling George Stephanopoulos that you can’t harbor racist feelings if you’re a law-enforcement officer is a moment of supreme cognitive dissonance.) We also meet a few of the people who are making sure their voices are heard, from “Copwatch” videographer David Witt to Brittany Ferrell, a mom who credits who own “revolutionary love” for another black woman for part of her own political awakening along with Brown’s passing.
Mostly, though, what we see is a neighborhood’s anger, pure and unfiltered, as National Guard members threaten folks who want answers and national news outlets portray Ferguson’s residents as nothing but an unruly rioting mob. And while the filmmakers also chronicle the triumph that came out of this tragedy, noting how it fanned the flames of the Black Lives Matter movement and devoting screen time to the catalytic Ferguson October events, it’s impossible not to notice the blatant racism and hypocrisy on display from the powers that be in their response to a grieving, aggravated-to-the-breaking-point community.
It’s a rough, raw film – there are times when it feels like it was assembled while its creators were themselves on the run from the law. But who needs polish when you have urgency? Whose Streets? is threaded with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou and the Declaration of Independence. It ends with a child screaming that it is her duty to fight for her freedom, and it is her duty to win. Her voice is hoarse. But like everyone else in this powerful doc, her voice is also being heard.