The reaction in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, started small. Group grieving turned to marches, which turned to demonstrations that eventually triggered a police riot. A trickle of looters hogged the national news spotlight, but that’s where Folayan and Davis step in. Images direct from the streets can record what news cameras never could: the fear, confusion and frustration of people who wake to discover an international news story happening on their front lawn.
The exterior scenes are shot with little commentary, casting a spotlight on those rarely given a platform. Naturally, some are more eloquent than others. Folayan and Davis respect their audience enough to show a diversity of opinions within the movement with varying levels of extremity. (For some, the man claiming, “This is not your daddy’s civil rights movement” or the woman in the “Who gives a fuck about voting?” T-shirt will represent a bridge too far.)
In time, certain faces emerge from the crowd to become our main “characters”. Most striking is Brittany Farrell, a mid-20s nursing student grooming her young daughter to be an independent thinker. She puts her career on hold after Brown’s murder and, along with her soon-to-be-wife, Alexis, gets more involved in activism.
Different audiences will find different touchpoints throughout the film, but as a white person with direct access to the attitudes of many complacent white people, Brittany’s arc is a valuable tool. While irrelevant to her ideas and ideals, she looks beautiful on camera and her moppety daughter Kendra is a hoot.
Whose Streets? follows this likable woman’s frustration with the deteriorating situation in her community until she commits the offence that, for many, is the unforgivable sin: she blocks traffic. Folayan and Davis may well have done the impossible in explaining to white people why they have to be inconvenienced – maybe even made late for their next appointment – if it wakes them up to the racist systems that control the US.
Other figures stand out, including Copwatch videographer David Whitt, who happened to live in an apartment across from where Brown was killed, but this is a movie about a grassroots uprising and has a near-Soviet feel with its collective protagonist. It is, however, to Folayan and Davis’ credit just how much of their first movie remains objective. Long stretches simply play back with a Frederick Wiseman level of immersion.
That’s not to suggest Whose Streets? is interested in getting “both sides” of this story, but how could it be, considering the police’s military tactics? It’s not as if the film-makers would have been granted interviews. (Also, with so many of them wearing “I Am Darren Wilson” bracelets, who in their right mind would want to approach them?)
The most striking scene comes when protesters take a female African-American officer to task. “We know you talk about this with your family,” they call out to her, as tears well in her eyes. After enough prodding, the tenor changes. “We love you, sister!” the protesters call out. It’s an image that could only be captured when the people are holding the cameras.
Written by Jordan Hoffman for Guardian