We see so many striking images in the Ferguson documentary “Whose Streets?”
Protesters shout to the skies and fires rage in the night and police in riot gear march through town — but in some ways, the relatively quieter moments are even more stunning, even more memorable.
• A young African-American woman charged for her role in a protest reads the verbatim account from the arresting officer’s report:
“The female was screaming, but it seemed more like tribal chanting than words.”
• Another woman approaches a line of police officers blocking an intersection in her hometown. She asks if she can pass through, just to get her car.
They tell her no. When she asks why, an officer tells her she shouldn’t even be there.
On a public street. In the town where she lives.
• A U.S. Marine who has been out of the service for a few years tears up as he talks about seeing the National Guard on the streets of his hometown.
“These are like my little brothers …” he says.
• A 6-year-old girl is riding with her mother to a demonstration. Her mother asks if she can read the sign in her hand. When the girl hesitates on one word, her mom helps her spell it out.
The word is “RACISM.”
This raw, powerful, street-level documentary is filled with such moments, important and telling vignettes that sting the soul and tear at your conscience.
We know the basics of what happened in Ferguson in the late summer and fall of 2014, after a police offer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Some of our fellow Americans, exercising their right to protest, to give voice to the voiceless, to assemble and organize, were met by National Guardsmen, by law enforcement officers in riot gear, by K-9 units. They were told to go home, they were told to get off their own front lawns, they were told to obey curfews, they were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Co-directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, “Whose Streets?” doesn’t revisit the events of Aug. 9, 2014, when Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. It is not an attempt to resolve still-lingering debates about the circumstances of that day.
Nor is this about providing a big-picture overview. There are no new interviews with police officers or government officials. On the rare times when we hear from Officer Wilson or the governor of Missouri or the mayor of Ferguson, it’s via archival TV interviews and news footage.
This is about the residents of Ferguson, who reacted to the killing of Michael Brown by galvanizing a movement on the streets of their town and via social media. They knew the whole world was watching, and they had seized the opportunity to tell their stories.
(Not that everyone taking to the streets had the purest of motives. “Whose Streets?” acknowledges the senseless destruction of property and vandalism, but reminds us that while buildings can be rebuilt, a young life taken can never be given back.)
Local and national media swarmed all over Ferguson during the uprisings — capturing the torching of buildings, the destruction of police vehicles, the senseless looting. In many cases, reporters also did an admirable job of talking to the protesters and of putting the spotlight on the over-the-top reaction from law enforcement. (One could also argue some of the media coverage was exploitative, but that’s another debate for another documentary to explore.)
But it’s likely not even the most well-intentioned and determined news crews could gain the kind of access and give us the unfiltered viewpoints provided by the smart-phone visuals and home video camera footage shot by residents of Ferguson and showcased in this film.
We also get to know some of the most dedicated and passionate activists, including videographer David Whitt, who has a “Copwatch” sticker on his camera as he records some incredible visuals, including the sight of red laser dots dancing across the faces and bodies of marchers; organizers Kayla Reed and Tef Poe, and the lesbian couple Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton, who are giddy with love for one another, and also (quite justifiably) consumed with asserting their rights and shining the light of truth on Ferguson, even if it means jail time.
At one rally, the little girl who has recently learned how to spell “Racism” recites a chant that ends thusly:
“We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. Rated R (for language throughout). Running time: 100 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.