What is so powerful and heartbreaking about this film is the absolute necessity for its existence
Whose Streets documents the aftermath of the murder of African-American teenager Mike Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. It focuses on the residents and activists in Ferguson, Missouri who tried to hold their government accountable for so senseless a killing. The film begins with the chatter of police radios over a black screen before fading in on Brown’s body. The eighteen-year-old was left on the sidewalk where he was shot for four and a half hours on the sweltering Saturday afternoon of August 9, 2014. It was a dehumanizing act of intimidation by law enforcement in regards to Michael Brown, his family and his community. It would not be the last.
Directed by activist Sabaah Folayan and artist Damon Davis, Whose Streets works to reclaim the human value of the people of Ferguson through the stories of residents like Kayla Reed, couple Alexis Templeton and Britany Ferrell and citizen journalist David Whitt. The film reaches past the initial protest and riots that the 24-hour news cycle tirelessly covered. The directors follow their subjects through the grand jury investigations, the acquittal of Officer Wilson and the eventual firings of city and county officials as a result of an investigation into racial bias by the Justice Department in March 2016. In this time we see who Reed, Templeton, Ferrell, Whitt and hip hop artist Tef Poe were before the Brown shooting and who they became because of it.
The object of the film is to show how the subject of racism in America has been tainted by the white gaze, which favors power structures created by white people, such as a police department, over the humanity of black and brown people. Through this gaze, Darren Wilson is treated with gentle exasperation in an interview with George Stephanopolous while every image, post or text of Mike Brown is interrogated for signs of the monster that could have caused the police officer to open fire. In this power structure the police are never made to answer for the killing of a young black man.
Folayan and Davis work tirelessly to demonstrate the humanity of the aggrieved. What is so powerful and heartbreaking about this film is the absolute necessity for its existence. The media’s predisposition to whiteness has only worsened since the days of Hurricane Katrina when white people carrying stolen groceries out of a broken doorway were called “scavengers” while black people doing the same were “looters.” People of color are not some alien species but fellow citizens who are trying to raise a child while finishing law school as Britany Ferrell does, practice direct democracy with their elected representatives as Kayla Reed does or stand up for their communities as David Whitt does. If they were white there would be no question that their lives had value and that their actions were patriotic. But since they aren’t and since Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile were not, this tragic project has to exist.
This is a film about black people organizing and confronting institutional racism. It is about the birth of a new generation of activists and the face of that generation is Britany Ferrell. When we meet her she is helping her young daughter with homework. She is a small, intelligent woman who addresses the camera with dreams of the world she wants for her daughter. But she is not just a dreamer. She leads Black Lives Matter protests with Templeton, her fiancé, and nothing quite prepares you for the transition between the mother teaching her child to the orator with a bullhorn firing up a crowd. She is a powerful queer woman whose sexuality further disrupts the white gaze with its intrinsic heteronormativity and emerges as a passionate spokesperson for her family and the people of Ferguson, the embodiment of a new energy and intelligence that will bring about change.
She faces consequences for her activism, as do most of the subjects of this film, but there is never a sense that anyone here will yield. If they were activists in Syria, Egypt, North Korea or China their actions would have been lauded, but they come from a poor, black neighborhood in the United States, so different narrative values were applied. The arc of the moral universe is long, according to Dr. King, and bends toward justice. It takes a force to bend something. He was that force and now Britany Ferrell and the activists of Ferguson are changing the course of the arc once again. Because of Whose Streets, you will not be able to deny their value.