Film Reviews

Review: ‘Whose Streets?’

Doc gives intimate perspective from the front lines of protests in Ferguson, Missouri

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures


Whose Streets?
(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis

Whose Streets? is a significant fusion of citizen journalism and documentary filmmaking. Director Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis provide a courageous and eye-opening account of the 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black male, by Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white police officer armed with a handgun and the department’s pervasive history of institutionalized racism. Whose Streets? gives footage from the thick of the protests as Ferguson residents rallied to draw attention to the rampant violence and oppression of Black people in the community, which ultimately grew into the Black Lives Matter movement as fellow Black Americans across the country stood up to the unacceptable fatal shootings of countless unarmed Black men by police. The film spotlights perspectives of the story that mainstream news outlets omitted and it provides an incendiary point of view on the experience through the eyes of Americans who lived it.

Whose Streets? presents a range of emotional footage captured through a mix of professional cameras, consumer grade handheld devices, and mobile phones. This collage is rough, shaky, and grainy. Sometimes it’s disorienting and confusing, but it’s consistently urgent and immediate. The rough and tumble nature of the footage gives a sense of the tension in the area and the simmering urge for change.

Whose Streets? puts audiences on the ground in the thick of the action alongside protestors and everyday revolutionaries such as Brittany Ferrell, David Whitt, Tef Poe, Kayla Reed, and Tory Russell who act as guides to the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting. They bring us to the scene of the crime where teddy bears, flowers, and farewell cards mark the life of a boy taken too soon. The constant police presence in the area is unnerving, as is the relatively safe and normal atmosphere filled with families and kids. This site could be any neighbourhood where kids play in the streets, so the implications of Brown’s death are severe. If America’s youths are safe in their backyards, what kind future can they expect?

The doc follows these protagonists as they rally in peaceful protests to demand answers. As their numbers grow, so too does the police presence, but the range of footage that Folayan and Davis presents runs counter to the narrative of the swelling angry mob depicted on the evening news. While there are incidents of violence and looting, the documentary evidence captured in close proximity shows a disproportionate police presence and a tense atmosphere that was simply waiting for a spark to “justify” an offensive move against the protestors. The gap between the images Whose Streets? presents, thoughtfully conveyed by the aesthetic divides between camera grades and citizen journalists, speaks to the racial bias of news media and officers of the law alike. It’s hard not to feel disgust when property receives a description far more humane and sympathetic than the people fighting for their lives do. Conveyed with the same collective spirit and alternative voice as docs like The Square or Winter on Fire, Whose Streets? is a powerful point of view into a vital fight for change.

The intimate access to the subjects also shows the personal struggles they experience for actively fighting against institutionalized racism and systemic bias. Ferrell, for example, faces felony charges by the film’s end for striking the car of a woman who nearly drove over Ferrell and her fellow protestors. The dramatic reading of the police report draws out descriptions of “tribal chanting” from an angry and animalistic mob. The account blatantly dehumanizes the accused, but, more significantly, illustrates the perceptions of Blacks by whites thanks to America’s long history of racism. The film is very compelling as it focuses on a handful of protagonists on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement. Folayan and Davis give a voice to these individuals and the greater movement that had to shout from the sidelines to be heard—and still does.

Whose Streets? screens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Nov. 1 and 2 as part of the Doc Soup series. Co-producer Chris Renteria in attendance for post-screening Q&As at all screenings.