In the wake of several incidents of police brutality towards black people, the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved into an international phenomenon. One of the catalysts for this increased activism was the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, which is the focus of “Whose Streets?“, a documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. Fueled by the deep outrage felt by his community, this film chronicles the efforts of those who woke up to this atrocity and in the process, rallies viewers to support one of today’s most important human rights causes.
“Whose Streets?” begins on that tragic day in St. Louis, when Michael Brown was left lying on the street for hours after being fatally shot by a police officer. Captured largely through cell phone footage and shared through social media, the incident soon attracts nationwide attention. Feeling distraught by this act of violence, community members gather to mourn the loss of yet another innocent black citizen. But what starts as a peaceful protest soon erupts into a riot, as an unduly weaponized response from the National Guard provokes anger in the people. From there, a new civil rights movement quickly takes hold, as activists reclaim the streets where so many have fallen.
Reliving the harrowing scene in the aftermath of Brown’s death, “Whose Streets?” charges right to the front lines of a civil uprising. The film’s opening moments immediately stir up your emotions, depicting the frustrations of the people seeking justice. We hear from several individuals who communicate not only the tensions surrounding the incident, but the history of discrimination experienced by them and others. Indeed, one man likens the murder to a racist lynching.
The subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is therefore presented as the only logical response. Much of the subsequent riot is well documented through the use of cell phone cameras, allowing the viewer to bear witness to the reasons behind the escalating tensions. With the protesters being armed with little more than their voices, you can immediately empathize with their anger.
Indeed, “Whose Streets?” refers to one of several chants that are repeated throughout the film. Another is a powerful declaration that “this is what democracy looks like.” In this regard, the filmmakers greatly succeed in highlighting that Black Lives Matter is a movement of the people, offering an inspiring reminder of the power of humanity when we work together. That solidarity is evident not just in the symbolic acts such as “hands up, don’t shoot,” but also in the filmmakers’ approach. Rather than interviewing scholars and persons of major influence, the activists highlighted are mostly ordinary people of varying ages, genders, sexual orientations and socioeconomic statuses. Though a certain level of deeper scholarly insight is therefore lacking, the raw passion on display gives the film a palpable sense of urgency.
As “Whose Streets?” spotlights the dedicated efforts of the Black Lives Matter activists in vivid detail (including the verdict handed to the culpable officer), the film shows that this is an issue unmistakably relevant to the here and now. From the gritty cell phone imagery to the tweets that flash across the screen, this is clearly an ongoing modern day struggle. As stated in the film, “this is not your daddy’s civil rights movement.” And if there are still those who are unaware of this fight for change, “Whose Streets?” will definitely open your eyes.
“Whose Streets?” opens in select theaters August 11.