Sabaah Folayan’s debut documentary Whose Streets? does not linger over the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. We hear recordings of 911 calls about the incident. We see cellphone video of heavily-armed police creating a cordon around the body as an angry crowd jeers. We see Brown’s mother saying she learned the victim was her son, not from police, but from a witness’s cellphone photo. We see Brown’s father weeping with mourners. But neither Brown and his family nor the specific details of the shooting are really the interest of this film.
Its focus is a street-level view of the unrest that followed, a detailed and humanizing look at the young organizers who tried to shape those protests. Whose Streets? is an attempt to reclaim and redirect the narrative many of its central figures believe was wrested from them not just by police, but by mainstream, national media, which focused on the looting and burning of a convenience store the night of Brown’s death, and then to have waited around, vulture-like, on subsequent days for things to get ugly after dark—right around prime time.
What Folayan’s somewhat more expansive coverage captures is a deeply wounded and fearful community organizing itself around the latest in a string of outrages it had previously come to accept as the often violent norm. Before the lines of armored vehicles arrive each evening, we see people of all ages and races gathering in the streets of their neighborhood to express support for each other, as much as for the Brown family, and to vocally reject the abusive authority of a police force they see as racist and illegitimate, in part because its officers, black and white, are not members of the community. Amidst these crowds are several compelling and charismatic young activists, concerned citizens, some married with children, working to sustain and direct the neighborhood’s energy toward making positive change. What that change might be, other than disbanding the current police force, remains unclear, though suggestions are made late in the film about reclaiming abandoned homes and schools to begin to rebuild the community with “young professionals” and family-focused programs.
Such vagaries are where Whose Streets?‘s otherwise powerful, and ultimately hopeful, project comes up short. This affecting profile of a promising and peaceful youth-generated movement never really seeks to explore or expose the deep and wide-ranging systems that need to change in order to permanently improve the situation of Ferguson’s residents, and those of many other inner city neighborhoods. That, one supposes, is the job of another film. Similarly, we have little sense of an alternative view, or any confirmation of how those in power view their relationship to the community or its future. There seems to be ample evidence of derision, antagonism, and irresponsibility on the part of police, but one wonders if giving them a chance to speak would make the condemnations the film makes even more powerful and convincing to those who might remain skeptical.
All the same, today, when many Americans are fearful about the future of their and their neighbors’ civil liberties, the joyful noise made by this film’s protagonists over their victories has great power to inspire, and to show a path for others, demonstrating that small acts of resistance will be possible with unified and peaceful action, and by publicly asking questions and demanding answers, even when the opponent has clear and massive advantages in money, power, and arms.