The killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson ignited long-standing anger about racist state violence against Black communities that manifested in a local uprising that reverberates to this day. "Whose Streets?,"which opens in theaters today (August 11)—almost three years to the date after Brown’s shooting death—revisits the uprising to offer what major media outlets’ frenzied and coverage didn’t: compassion and an intimate perspective.
The documentary, which premiered at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, shows the unfolding community anger and militarized police response through the perspectives of Black Ferguson activists and residents who lived through it. Local organizers like Millennial Activists United co-founder Brittany Ferrell and rapper Tef Poe take center stage in the film’s embedded perspective. It also unflinchingly depicts violent police repression on the front lines with necessary context.
We spoke to New York City-based filmmaker Sabaah Folayan and St. Louis multimedia artist Damon Davis—both of whom make their feature film directorial debut with "Whose Streets?"—about the creative choices and tensions that influenced the movie. Here are four questions from that conversation, condensed and edited for clarity and length.
You’re both making your feature film directorial debut with "Whose Streets?" Why did you choose this format?
Folayan: It was a really organic process to find the right medium for this story. At the time, I was working at a non-profit organization that did [post prison] reentry. I hoped to go to Ferguson and do a public health study to show that people and police facing off was going to have a long-term traumatic effect on the community. When I got there, I realized it just wasn’t the type of environment to do that kind of research. That’s how [Lucas Alvarado Farrar, director of photography] and I went from asking questions, taking photos and writing, to asking questions on film. I connected with Damon shortly after that. We had been looking for a local collaborator to give us the most authentic point of view, and a lot of people directed us to him because he’s a really respected artist in St. Louis. The format became clear [only] after we connected with him.
Davis: I really wanted to do a sort of transmedia documentary where you could control from whose eyes you were watching. I wanted it to be a movie with certain parts where you could veer off into other people’s personal journey through Ferguson. When we all started working together, I came to my senses and realized it was hard enough just to make a regular movie.
Filming this documentary put you right in the middle of the uprising, and you explain in your directors’ statement that you wanted to counter the way media demonized Michael Brown and Black protesters. Did you have to walk a line between being observers and participants?
Folayan: That was a really tough line for me to walk. As someone coming from outside the community, I needed to be of service and it couldn’t be about my own personal catharsis around policing. I really had a duty to keep my composure at all times and be the person who was there to bear witness, to capture the people fighting for their own backyard—who were very rightfully locked into the moment.
You took "Whose Streets?" to the national stage with the Sundance Film Fest premiere and, now, this theatrical release. That means offering very intimate footage of the uprising to an audience whose members may not share anything with the people depicted. Were you concerned about how this project would be packaged?
Davis: We definitely had apprehensions. One thing we definitely didn’t want to be is voyeurs, because that’s how it always is. [Media depictions of] Black people getting beat up are, somehow, always just a key to White people finding their own humanity through watching us suffer. That’s a major reason why we wanted to tell the story this way: We didn’t want this to turn into a safari through the ‘hood with poverty and pain porn created for a White audience.
Folayan: One thing we asked [editor Christopher McNabb] early on was to make sure we weren’t using protest footage as B-roll. That was really tough. When you have a situation that’s so chaotic that there aren’t characters to clearly identify or something to hold on to, it can be really tempting to take that footage and put it behind the voices of talking heads describing what’s going on from an outsider’s perspective. We challenged him to use that footage in a way that was very specific, and I think he ran with that by crafting a sense of space and place out of clips that were actually very separate. He did a great job of building a story arc within these small moments. Whenever we see someone who’s destrying property or whatever the case may be, their actions are always contextualized within a cause-and-effect relationship with what the state has done.
What new perspectives or information does "Whose Streets?" offer to people who closely followed the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing?
Davis: Even people who are familiar with the events or featured in the film don’t really know the sacrifices these people made. Tef Poe talks about the danger you’re constantly in when you live there and your enemy’s the police. [Copwatch activist] David Whitt was evicted from his apartment [by its management company] and had to figure out where to go with his wife and kids. I hope that the personal sacrifices people made to stand up for themselves, for all Black people and, in turn, humanity comes across when people watch this movie.
Folayan: I hope, after seeing this film, that people question each time they turn on the news. I want people to question what they’re seeing if they’re not getting information from a primary source, to be a little skeptical of the messages they’re receiving through the media.
"Whose Streets?" debuts in theaters nationwide today via Magnolia Pictures. Visit the film’s website to find a screening near you.