It’s one of the least emotional scenes in “Whose Streets?” that is one of the most devastating, as Dhoruba, a Black Lives Matter activist in Ferguson, Missouri begins to pull various remnants of the war outside his home from a bag, taking out rubber bullets, shotgun shells and empty smoke canisters with the shock long gone from his voice that they were put to use here. What’s worse is a moment later when his wife can be seen cradling their child, speaking softly so as not to wake her, and rattling off milestones in her young life such as “she got tear-gassed, she was in jail…” as one would about their baby’s first words or steps.
An electrifying, infuriating and necessary rejoinder to the image many outside of Ferguson had to the events that unfolded there following the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of the local police, it’s all too fitting that “Whose Streets?” premiered at Sundance a day after a photo circulated around social media of a gaggle of journalists huddled around a burning garbage can on Inauguration Day in Washington DC as if they’d found the holy grail – an image of dissent that would say it all when in fact it now says nothing [since] ultimately such photos are used to deflect attention from the trash fire going on down the street at the Capitol Building. Both capturing history and shrewdly dissecting the way it’s made, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ film is full of such images, interspersing the sensationalistic coverage from Fox News, CNN and MSNBC with footage from the cell phone cameras of many members of the community to quite literally show the same stories from a different angle, showing less a violent mob than a well-organized group of concerned citizens whose impassioned cries for justice are met with gunfire. While one could argue that Folayan simply edited the footage to accommodate his point of view as major media organizations did, it is the film’s level of detail and humanity that makes it unassailable.
In building a full look at an entire community under siege, “Whose Streets?” is abstract at first, built around chapter breaks with tweets from the ground level experience in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting mixed in with quotes from famed civil rights leaders and introducing a flurry of people inside and out of their activism, careful to show each in all of their dimensions. But like a hand that turns into a fist, the film comes together as the movement does, showing small-scale resistance like blocking the constant threat of removing the informal memorial to Brown that’s set up outside where he was shot or larger-scale civil disobedience such as stopping freeway traffic to get their point across. The footage of large demonstrations is truly moving, especially when it’s cut together as fluidly as editor Christopher McNabb does here, but the depiction of activists cleverly figuring out ways to use what little resources they have in a situation that is heavily rigged against them is what makes the film transcendent because you see how they come from such a personal place. In “Whose Streets?” context truly is everything.
Though the film constantly reminds there is power in numbers, it is the ability of Folayan and Davis to make every individual in a potentially anonymous crowd stand out, poignantly lingering on the books in their bedrooms and seeking out a variety of different experiences amongst those all fighting for the same thing. “Whose Streets?” stuns first as a document of true courage in the face of deep injustice, but then as a remarkable feat of filmmaking, quantifying the generations of pain that have led to this moment with the energy and intensity of its subjects. For both reasons, it should not be missed.
“Whose Streets?” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play three more times at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22 at 9 pm at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City, January 25th at 5:30 pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, January 27th at 6:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City.