“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
It’s a mantra spoken over and over again in “Whose Streets.” It’s spoken quietly and in screams, in loving circles of hugs and tears and in the face of hordes of police with machine guns. It’s spoken in the booming voices of massive crowds and by the lone cry of a girl who can’t be older than 11. To describe it as “powerful” would be an insult. To describe it at all would be a disservice — you need to see it.
This movie is essential. Made by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis in both their directorial debuts, the film was created on the frontlines of the Ferguson protests in 2014, following the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.
“Whose Streets” is cinematic, filled with striking, chilling images. We see a memorial of teddy bears and candles burned to the ground. We see an old woman pepper sprayed and dragged across the street. A baby who’s been arrested and tear gassed. A mother who is forced to explain to her little girl that she might get shot if she goes out there, but she has to do it anyway. A group of black men are told by police to “go home” as they’re standing in their own front yard, just before the police throw tear gas at them. A line of young people holding hands, armed with nothing but signs, repeating their mantra over and over again as they face off against rows and rows of police with guns and canisters of gas at the ready.
But perhaps the most striking decision on the part of the filmmakers was to spend very little time on the particulars of Darren Wilson’s case. His face gets maybe a minute of screen time. What we see instead of his testimony is a group of Ferguson residents and protesters outside the courthouse, surrounding Michael Brown’s mother and holding her as prosecutor Robert McCulloch announces Wilson would not be indicted by the grand jury. The look on her face is unfathomable.
“Whose Streets” insists on the fundamental humanity and pain of a community who is so often painted by the media as violent thugs and looters. “This is so sad,” says a woman taking a video of a convenience store being set on fire. “This is so fucking sad.” The film makes no space for the mainstream media’s discomfort and subsequent distortion with the movement’s method of resistance. As activist Kayla Reed says, “You can rebuild a building. You can’t resuscitate Michael Brown.”
The filmmakers don’t make their presence known in the documentary, but it’s obvious by the intimacy of the footage and the ease with which their interview subjects speak to the camera that Folayan and Davis are trusted and respected within the Ferguson community. And that really is the subject of the documentary — not the individual activists whose stories are told, but the city itself. It’s a film about a community that’s been living in fear for as long as they can remember, but that still has a fundamental hope for a better future. They wouldn’t continue fighting if they didn’t hope.
At its heart, “Whose Streets” is a call to arms. It’s impossible to watch this film and not feel pushed to show up, put in the time, the effort, the risk — because people are dying. There’s no space for anything but absolute urgency. “Whose Streets” is insistent to delineate between urgency and hatred, though. “We don't do this because we hate the police,” says Reed. “We do this because we love each other. And love always wins.”
“Whose Streets” doesn’t look away. It doesn’t flinch. It’s hard to watch at times, and that’s on purpose — this reality is anything but easy. It’s a movie full of heart, anger and genuine abject horror. And yet, you leave the theater struck by the pulsing, beating heart of this community and its relentless energy. Because they don’t just believe in a better future — they’re building one.