Director: Sabaah Folayan
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 8/11/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 10, 2017
Sabaah Folayan's first film documents the rise of a political movement from the ground level. Whose Streets? is a film about activism, but it is not itself a work of activism. The nuance of this distinction will, undoubtedly, be lost on some. At a time when the obviousness of the statement "Black lives matter," said within the context of a series of high-profile police shootings, can be misinterpreted or intentionally twisted by some, it is almost inevitable that those same people will see a political statement in the mere existence of this documentary, which simply shows what happened on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown Jr. and how the Black Lives Matter movement grew in the aftermath.
We need to have better discussions about such things. Hell, we need to have discussions about such things, and one of the great shames of our current political climate, in which even the most obvious statement or sentiment is perceived as an attack, is that we don't discuss.
We yell: Just watch the news. We distract and deflect: "All lives matter," they say, missing the point entirely, or instead of even considering the possibility that reforms are necessary, they accuse people within a movement or sympathetic to it of holding hatred toward the institution of law enforcement and everyone within that institution. We see each other as opponents or, worse, enemies. We elect a man to the office of the President of the United States who encourages violence (offering to pay the legal fees of anyone who would "knock the crap out of" a protestor) and condones police brutality in the name of "law and order."
This film would be a perfect place to start with such discussions, and it will be for those who are still capable of keeping an open mind in this world of closed ones, insulated within a bubble of like-minded opinions. Those who followed the events in Ferguson won't learn much new, but it serves as a sobering reminder of just how much a city in the Midwest of the United States turned into something that looked like a police state in some other country.
The film covers a timeline from August 9, 2014, when an unarmed Brown was shot multiple times and killed by a police officer, to late November of 2015, a year after a grand jury decided it would not indict the officer. It's divided into five acts, with the first showing the immediate aftermath of Brown's death, before taking a street-level view of the protests and civil unrest that followed. Folayan and cinematographer Lucas Alvarado-Farrar arrived in the city shortly after everything started. The film fills in the inherent gaps of a two-person team trying to cover everything that happened with footage from Damon Davis, who's credited as a co-director, and an abundance of cellphone footage taken by residents—protestors and people just trying to go about their lives alike.
Certain things happen again and again. Protestors march down the streets, and they're met by rows of police in full riot gear. This is, as multiple people point out, exactly the kind of response that led to the protests in the first place. It wasn't just Brown's killing. These feelings of distrust and fear had been building in the community for years—for a police department that, according to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, had a long history of treating African-American citizens with prejudice and as a collective ATM of sorts with the issuing of traffic tickets.
The governor of the state calls in the National Guard. President Obama urges peace, which irritates a few of the protestors, who already have been indirectly labeled as criminals by the news media. The film's archival footage includes many of those new reports—all of them focusing on the violence and looting without a single word about Brown, the mainly peaceful protestors, or how it looks when the police of an American city have the appearance of a military force. One officer directs a woman, trying to cross a police barricade to get to her car on the other side, to go back into the chaos. Cops shoot rubber bullets without provocation, and tear gas canisters are fired at people standing in their own yards after curfew.
This is an impressive feat of editing by Folayan and editor Christopher McNabb, who tell the story of the disconnect between the media's reporting and what actually was happening, as well as the overreaction of government officials, without a single talking-head expert or on-screen text (The only text here is devoted to select quotes and a brief coda). Instead, the story is told through the imagery—what we see happening in the moment and the juxtaposition of disparate ideas, such as those news reports and protestors simply standing with their hands in the air. The filmmakers follow a few people in the community. One man has taken it upon himself to hold the police accountable by recording their interactions with citizens. One woman, a single mother, had no thoughts of becoming an activist until this point.
To call the film objective would be false, but that word—objective—means little these days, if it ever meant anything remotely tangible, let alone achievable, at all. Folayan has a perspective, and it's set on the citizens. The filmmakers don't talk to police officers (although protestors certainly do, with one African-American woman in a line of cops seeming to have a crisis of conscience in front of the camera) or government officials, because they don't need to. They have their press conferences, which play out here with the deceptive logic that controlled the political narrative in certain circles. Whose Streets? only cares about such things as a more reasons for people to speak out against what's happening. Those are voices that matter.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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