Review: ‘Whose Streets?’

The documentary film has (thankfully) evolved from stuffy, archival illumination to urgent, of-its-time social activism in a blink. Pieced together with first-person cell phone footage, online media and the talking heads of our 24 hour news cycle, it’s a style of film that feels truly democratic …. even if it often has a sharp point of view to instill within the viewer. Instead of choosing to simply educate or to be erudite, it wants to breathe and incite.

That latter option is at the root of Sabaah Folayan’s (and co-directed by Damon Davis) new film, Whose Streets? Designed from the aforementioned social media bits, Folayan’s feature embeds itself with several key activists and community members during the 2014 police shooting of Ferguson, Missouri teenager Michael Brown and the ensuing tensions that flared up afterwards. Alternating between personal, behind-the-scenes moments and thoughts of the African-American people involved and the escalating protests and anger of an entire state, Whose Streets? becomes a blistering microcosmic anatomy of the social divide that’s engulfing our entire country.

After opening with the night when unarmed teen Michael Brown was shot, Whose Streets? slowly brings into focus a few people directly involved with the organizing and participating in the waves of protests that would take place over the next year in Missouri.

Single mother Brittany dedicates herself to the movement while raising her young daughter to think for herself. Ultimately one of the people arrested for blocking traffic during a protest along one of the main highways months afterwards, she becomes the soft-spoken but highly committed voice of the every-woman within the film.

A second voice in the film arises from David, a resident of the apartment building directly across the street from where Michael Brown was shot (and laid under a sheet for hours). Unwittingly becoming the protector of a make-shift teddy bear memorial at the scene, some of the film’s most trenchant moments come from his half obscured cell phone recording of two separate events at the site: one when someone sets it on fire and city workers causally arrive, put it out and leave without a word, and secondly when apartment employees begin bagging it up to throw it all away.

Outside of these two individuals, Whose Streets? orchestrates a powerful assembly of images — both professional and amateur — as the war of voices, marches, police reactions and city meetings ebb and flow together. The ugliness of rioting and violence are shown. However, understated and complex moments are given equal footing as well, such as the conflicted face of a female African-American police officer being taunted by a row of protesters standing in front of her. The way she tries to mask her emotions and remain authoritative is, perhaps, the ultimate point of Whose Streets? In times like these, blame, anger and the cries for justice stretch beyond color and need constructive dialogue outside of class, division and uniform (on either side). How we get there, I have no idea.

About 15 years ago, I decried a Michael Moore documentary for its heavy-handed approach and extremely slanted point of view, stating something to the effect that there’s no room for sledgehammer tactics in a documentary. I now realize the foolishness of my words. The current slant of hyper-personal, charged and unobstructed viewpoints in many current documentaries may be the only way to decipher the shifting truth in a minefield of half-lies and concocted stories. Films such as Whose Streets? (and Jennifer Brea’s soon-to-be-released doc masterpiece Unrest) give voices to the voiceless. That is something that needs room in any society, anytime.

Whose Streets? opens locally on Friday, August 18 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.