Brittany Farrell — an African-American lesbian, mother and activist — is one of the many impassioned voices in the sobering documentary “Whose Streets?” which opens Aug. 11 at the Ritz at the Bourse.
Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis chronicle social justice and Black Lives Matter activism in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of the tragic shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Mike Brown by 28-year-old white police officer Darren Wilson. The film is largely observational, with remarkable video footage from camera phones and/or from YouTube showing how protesters mobilized — and, more importantly, were treated — in the aftermath of the Aug. 9, 2014 killing of Brown.
The film includes interviews with a handful of fascinating subjects. David Whitt, who created Copwatch to record police activity, is featured in a particularly potent scene in which he displays the large rubber bullets and casings for all of the chemical weapons, like tear gas, that he has collected during protests. Tef Poe, a local hip-hop artist, also expresses heartfelt messages about how his community is affected by police violence.
But it is Farrell whose story really resonates, as she describes her commitment to activism saying, “As soon as [my] community was at war, my future didn’t matter.” She put her education on hold and emphasized that she wanted to teach her 6-year-old daughter to think for herself, resist and participate in democracy. Watching Farrell chant, “We will continue to fight for our rights and what we believe in … we have nothing to lose but our chains” is truly inspiring.
The important lessons shared in “Whose Streets?” are delivered with urgency, taking viewers onto the streets as police attack people on their own front lawns, insisting they stay inside their houses. Another video has an African-American woman justly arguing with cops at 10:30 p.m. when they try to enforce Ferguson’s midnight curfew 90 minutes early. Another scene features an African-American woman who just wants to get to her car being told by the police that she must go back and out of her way.
Folayan and Davis show these and other powerful scenes that have taken place in Ferguson, such as peaceful protests and candlelight vigils. These moments form a mosaic that shines light on the stories largely uncovered by the media. One particularly poignant episode involves an attempt to keep the memorial site for Brown going after there has been an effort to end it. Perhaps the most emotionally stirring moment in the film is seeing the citizens’ reactions to the disappointing decision handed down by the grand jury that Wilson would not be indicted.
The filmmakers also depict the rioting that happened in the city over time as waves of anger erupted in the city. Scenes of businesses being burned or store windows being broken are disturbing, but they vividly express the reactions African-Americans in Ferguson have towards the relentless discrimination and racism that exists in their community. When one woman says that a business can be rebuilt, but a life cannot be replaced, her anger is palpable and righteous.
The protests that are organized to unify the community and give voice to the suffering are also rousing. There is a significant event staged on a highway in which Farrell and others block traffic. The protest results in Farrell getting arrested. Watching her being led away in handcuffs while her fellow protesters badger the police asking what Farrell is being charged with is compelling. While the filmmakers show Farrell meeting with an attorney about her case, as well as her reading a particularly condemning passage of the police report against her, “Whose Streets?” never reveals the outcome of that particular situation, which is frustrating.
However, viewers are privy to other key moments in Farrell’s life, from her girlfriend Alexis Templeton proposing to her to her daughter’s concern that her mother may be shot by the police for her activism. What makes these and other scenes resonate is how Farrell explains her outlook. She says she challenges the “ideas of normalcy … If you are not questioning normal, you are not paying attention.” When she later describes how “liberation” motivates her, it is cathartic.
“Whose Streets?” will certainly appeal to viewers interested in social justice, activism and accountability. It may even get their blood boiling as scenes depict discrimination and racism. But the film is cogent in this era of “disrupt and resist.” The importance of “Whose Streets?” may excuse the film’s flaws of not creating enough of a narrative or lacking in detail about many of the interesting subjects featured. There may have been a rush to get the film out in the wake of Trump’s election. But it is a timely reminder of a national crisis. It is also a testament to the necessity of speaking truth to power and standing up for one’s rights and against oppression, as Farrell eloquently shows.