WHOSE STREETS, documentary, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts,
One of the stunning moments in this raw, bumpy from directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis comes not on the hot streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where most of the film takes place, but in the cool studios of ABC, where George Stephanopoulos sits down with Darren Wilson, the white police officer who in the summer of 2014 shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown, and left his body lying in the street for more than four hours.
Asked by the host whether he admits to any racist feelings, the officer replies, “You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you.”
This will come as news to African-American communities across this country, where unarmed black men are statistically far more likely than unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.
Folayan and Davis wade into the Ferguson neighborhood where Brown was killed, documenting the unrest and activism — and the police and military response — with their own footage and additional images recorded on phones and digital cameras by participants and onlookers. Some of the street activity is violent, erupting into looting and burning. Most of it is relatively peaceful on the protestors’ side, characterized by the anger, frustration, and sorrow of a community too accustomed to losing its young men. A new wave of outrage breaks out when a grand jury declines to bring charges against Wilson.
It’s a street’s-eye point of view, and the viewer can get lost in the turmoil, as traumatized residents brandish handmade signs and yell, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” as some witnesses claim Brown did before he was killed. Police move in on them in expressionless phalanxes, pushing them back, firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. “Return to your homes,” a loudspeaker voice orders; and protesters standing in their front yards yell back that this is their home.
The film is loosely structured, divided into five chapters, each headed with a quote from a black leader. One comes from Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The filmmakers spend time with several activists in the community, including David Whitt, a young father who recorded a lot of the action with a camera prominently marked with the insignia “Copwatch.” A young college student named Brittany Farrell takes her six-year-old daughter Kenna out into the streets to observe and take part. “I want her to think for herself,” she explains, “to resist and participate in democracy.” That’s where hope for the future lies, the film concludes — in educating and preparing the next generation to understand the challenges of American racism and to work to overcome them. — Jonathan Richards