Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly credited several photographs. This version has been updated.
The documentary “Whose Streets?” revisits the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., three years ago this week, when the death of a young, unarmed African American teenager at the hands of a white police officer spurred days of heated local protests and, ultimately, a national movement.
Most Americans got their version of those events through network and cable news, whose incendiary images of looting and arrests swiftly became the “official” version of the story, which pitted hysterical, out-of-control demonstrators against cops making a stand for law and order. Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis subvert that narrative in “Whose Streets?,” in which they knit together participants’ recollections, phone footage, social media posts and present-day testimony into a riveting street-level account, not only of Ferguson’s days of rage, but also the decades of marginalization and mistreatment that led up to them.
After recalling what they were doing that Saturday in August — coming home from church, going to work, doing errands, kayaking — the Ferguson residents in “Whose Streets?” recount the pain and outrage of Brown’s multiple gunshot wounds and the fact that his body lay in the street for four hours before being properly cared for. From there, the film plunges viewers into a firsthand experience of the spontaneous organizing meetings and the protests that erupted, with the quickly assembled crowd yelling, “We want answers” to a grimly unresponsive — and heavily militarized — police force.
Things take an alarming turn when looters destroy the local QuikTrip, an act that activist Kayla Reed defends as “revolutionary” and “strategic.” One can disagree with that assessment and still understand why frustration and resentment finally erupted after years of feeling like a community being occupied by a hostile army (a local activist who once lived in the Palestinian territories compares the helmeted, heavily armed Ferguson police to the checkpoints he encountered on the West Bank).
Although news reports presented police use of rubber bullets and tear gas as justifiable responses to increasingly volatile crowds, “Whose Streets?” offers a useful alternative view, with citizen journalists capturing what look like unprovoked attacks on demonstrators by law enforcement officers woefully unprepared or unwilling to de-escalate sensitive situations and engage. (“The police have gone completely rogue,” activist Tef Poe writes in one tweet.) In one of the film’s most affecting moments, an African American police officer holds back tears after she’s confronted by one of the protesters who asks her to at least acknowledge that she knows why they’re marching.
“Whose Streets?” — edited with superb sensitivity by Christopher McNabb — continues through the aftermath of Brown’s death and into the outrage that ensued after the officer who killed him wasn’t indicted. Folayan and Davis punctuate those proceedings with snippets of such state and federal leaders as then-Gov. Jay Nixon and then-President Barack Obama, whose pleas for calm clearly fail to persuade the filmmakers. They’re far more sympathetic to the grass-roots activists who are seen fomenting the nascent Black Lives Matter movement while caring for children, pursuing degrees and holding down jobs.
The most compelling among these figures are Brittany Ferrell and her soon-to-be-wife, Alexis Templeton, who are raising Brittany’s young daughter to be as politically engaged as they are. As a portrait of long-festering wounds and broken faith, “Whose Streets?” doesn’t offer much hope, especially when every attempt at accountability meets with stonewalling (when he’s shown at city hall meetings, the mayor of Ferguson refuses even to make eye contact with the citizens he purports to represent).
But “Whose Streets?” still manages to end on a defiantly optimistic note, as a new generation prepares to take on the fight for political rights, social space and psychic wholeness that have been denied through what one observer calls an “unseen war” of misunderstanding, intimidation and impunity. “We don’t do this because we hate the police,” Reed says in the moments leading up to the film’s deeply stirring finale. “We do this because we love each other.”
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity. 100 minutes.