Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Whose Streets? is structured around the ways individual voices contribute to a community’s response to their own trauma. The filmmakers use on-the-ground footage from the protests that took place on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 to contextualize the lives of Ferguson’s black citizens. Voices are heard before names or credentials appear on screen and often work as sound bridges across the film’s footage, as if to impart how even the conventions of documentary filmmaking often rely on authority to establish credibility.
The film’s rhythmic editing contextualizes Ferguson’s streets for their relevance to a black populace’s want for stability and peace. Folayan and Davis effectively render these streets a psychological battleground, borne from oppression synonymous with the shield perched on the front of those blue uniforms worn by men and women policing the pavement. By filtering the events through the perspectives of those most vulnerable to police brutality, the filmmakers construct a grassroots eulogy for the stolen solace of everyday life—a solace that seemingly never was in the first place.
Whose Streets? breathlessly introduces community voices. Among them are Kayla, whose bookshelf is packed with texts theorizing self-defense in the context of nation-state policy versus action, and who differentiates between strategic responses and aggression. T Dubb O discusses how definitions of violence typically offered in the news value property damage over people’s lives. Meanwhile, Brittany makes breakfast while explaining how she approaches educating her daughter, Kenna, about the black experience. The film interweaves these perspectives to implicitly reveal the heterogeneity of black lives, and that any notion of a “black community” automatically silences the range of perspectives that aren’t always in lockstep with one another.
Nevertheless, Whose Streets? roots its visual sophistication in the spatial markers of Ferguson, with street signs and crossroads supplementing the film’s overriding sense that a community must invite a multitude of perspectives in order to function as such. The geographical aspects of where one calls home also overlap with how the definition of struggle and resistance forms itself, so that the quotations by Martin Luther King Jr., Frantz Fanon, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou that Folayan and Davis use to demarcate each of the film’s five chapters become themselves an approximation of these very roads, and contain the lived experience of individuals who spoke and acted in the name of a forward motion for all.
The events on the streets of Ferguson, as police launch tear gas and fire rubber bullets at unarmed protesters, are offered as documents of such actions, not as symbolic statements of larger significance. That is, the filmmakers don’t aestheticize the violence with non-diegetic music or commentary, nor edit the material together in a strictly chronological, present-tense sense. Rather, responses by protesters determine where the camera cuts to next, with leaps between various times and places indicating a larger problem, one that goes deeper than the “now,” and that needs to be confronted by the viewer’s own reflection and interrogation.
As the media reports amass a false narrative of Ferguson’s unruly citizens operating out of self-interest through acts of looting, the film’s opening scene, of two black men discussing police brutality in St. Louis while driving through the streets, accrues only further evidence for their claim that, even though the calendar says 2014, they cannot recognize it as such. Accordingly, the question inherent to Whose Streets? asks not simply how communities might band together in the face of systemic violence, but also who controls the ability to tell the stories that pervades dominant perceptions of such conduct.
A clip of Darren Wilson swearing to reporter George Stephanopoulos that he’s not a racist further exemplifies how even the framing of the conversation by popular media, which concerns ill-defined, black-and-white assessments of conscious action, prevents progression toward meaningful answers that might suggest an avenue for change. By unhinging U.S. racism from a fixed place in time, the filmmakers honor their subjects not through ideology or political argumentation, but by the very fabric of their humanity.