WHOSE STREETS? Review
This week marks the third anniversary of the 2014 police shooting of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Whose Streets? the new documentary about that killing and the resulting civil unrest, is being released Aug. 11 in St. Louis, New York and Los Angeles. The young co-directors Sabaah Folayan of L.A. and Damon Davis of St. Louis are both Black and provide an insider, African American perspective in this hard-hitting nonfiction film with its “you are there,” street-level cinematography.
What is really great about Whose Streets? is this “Blacks’ eye view” of events and the struggle. Although we see glimpses of the slain Brown’s parents early on in the film they fade from view, while Streets? focuses on militants resisting the police and mobilized National Guard’s clear over-militarization of circumstances that only served to further inflame showdowns and clashes at Ferguson. The activists use video cameras, mass marches, civil disobedience and other means to fight back against the pigs. The plight of others caught up in the swirl of unfolding history, and its impact on their lives amidst interludes as life goes on, is also depicted.
Whose Streets? is a sort of filmic analogy to the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew out of the shooting of Mike Brown and other African Americans gunned down by police and vigilantes for minor (if any) alleged infractions of the law.
Whose Streets? is a sort of filmic analogy to the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew out of the shooting of Mike Brown and other African Americans gunned down by police and vigilantes for minor (if any) alleged infractions of the law. As I understand the term and movement, it is called “Black Lives Matter” because in this context of persecution and assassination by pigs, Blacks are bearing the brunt of this wave of abuse of power. It does not mean indigenous Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Caucasian and other lives don’t matter, but that those currently coming under attack by law enforcement/vigilante murders are disproportionately African Americans.
In a similar way, Black protagonists are focused on in Whose Streets? - whites, who are used to being front and center in America’s racial pecking order, are not concentrated on, appearing more in the background (if at all). There are glimpses of Officer Darren Wilson, who justifies his shooting down of Mike Brown, but in the film he is not the star or center of things. Rather, the masses of Black people and their militant champions are.
This is a refreshing change from that other movie about civil disturbance that has recently been released, Detroit, which dramatizes the urban insurrection that shook that Michigan city 50 years ago this month. Detroit is helmed by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, which she collaborated on with screenwriter Mark Boal, as she had for the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker and the killing Osama bin Laden agitprop thriller Zero Dark Thirty. While Detroit has major white characters, there definitely are important, sympathetic parts for Black actors.
At the USC screening I attended, during Detroit’s credits a woman shouted out: “The best of white liberalism!” It seemed to be a sardonic remark critical of Detroit and I pondered what she may have meant until I saw Streets? In Detroit, which is directed/written by white talents, the film does not focus on any of the militants rising up in the Motor City (also against police brutality, as well as other factors). With the possible exception of one character who fires a starter pistol or toy gun, the rebels’ perspective is largely ignored.
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While Detroit definitely empathizes with oppressed Blacks and condemns police and National Guardsmen’s excessive use of force, African Americans are depicted mainly as victims - not as activists fighting for their rights, as some of the protagonists in Streets? are portrayed to be. This is a clear difference, between white liberalism and Black radicalism, between the Hollywood version of events and a nitty-gritty documentary vision growing out of the grass roots. Bigelow, of course, is the only woman to win a Best Director Oscar, and while Detroit has the big budget, artistry and production values, low budge Streets? more than makes up for this with greater authenticity and its eyewitness camerawork.
Indeed, Streets? implies criticism of Pres. Obama, who appears in some of the news clips and footage Streets? integrates into this documentary consisting mainly of original cinematography shot for this film per se. In the doc’s context, the first Black president’s response to the court verdict clearing Officer Wilson arguably makes Obama look like an Uncle Tom. In retrospect, the Obama administration’s initial responses to police abuse of power were tomfoolery.
When distinguished Prof. Henry Louis Gates was rousted by a pig near Harvard for the heinous crime of trying to enter his home while Black, the then-newly sworn in Obama reacted by inviting the Caucasian officer and Gates to the White House for a “beer summit” to amicably discuss race relations. And when young Black Oscar Grant was shot by a BART officer for the heinous crime of riding a train while Black, Attorney General Eric Holder (a corporate attorney who never missed an opportunity to throw the book at low level, often ethnic minority alleged offenders) failed to hold the pig accountable. It was as if Obama and Holder were announcing to white supremacists: “It’s open season on Black folks - and we’re not going to do a darn thing about it!” Had they immediately punished the Cambridge and Bay Area pigs, the ensuing police/vigilante crime wave against Blacks may have been deterred, but their early tepid responses almost invited it.
The one problem I had with Streets? is that it shows that video footage of Mike Brown allegedly committing a crime in a shop. In it, the police are criticized by revealing that presumably closed circuit footage in order to malign Mike’s character and undermine the case against Officer Wilson, if not against the entire systematic, institutionalized racism in Ferguson. But then Streets’? filmmakers fail to put that purportedly damning footage into context and explain it - they just move on to the fast unfolding events they cover, with demonstrators facing off against police and Guardsmen, and so on. But I wished they had put that apparently damaging clip into context - otherwise, why did the filmmakers bring it up themselves? As shown it seems to perpetuate a disservice to Mike Brown and the “Don’t shoot! Hands up!” movement his killing inspired.
Nevertheless, Folayan and Davis are to be lauded for a courageous, well-made film that shows the other side of the Ferguson story - and the larger ongoing saga of police brutality versus Blacks in racist Amerikkka. Likewise, the Actors' Gang is to be praised for boldly screening Streets? at the company’s Culver City theater, along with a program featuring this excellent, not-be-missed documentary’s co-helmers.
After its Aug. 11 opening in select cities Whose Streets? will be theatrically released nationwide. Don’t miss it! We must never forget these injustices!
As part of the “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the Russian Revolution’s centennial film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s revolutionary poetic classic Earth on Friday, 7:30 p.m., August 25, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org.