In episode three of the inaugural season of “The West Wing”, while deliberating recourse against Syria for shooting down a helicopter containing his military physician, President Josiah Bartlett inquires of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “What is the virtue of a proportional response?!” The fury in his voice starkly contrasts the resolute and grandfatherly individual we had been introduced to in the previous two episodes, and it’s a poignant illustration of how tragedy can shape the resolve of an individual. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis explore this idea from the perspective of St. Louis residents and activists in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in their riveting documentary, “Whose Streets.”
Folayan and Davis follow several people present during the events following Brown’s death the most compelling of whom are Brittany, a college student turned activist, and David, a resident on the block where Brown was killed who takes up the role of police watch dog. Dispersed throughout compilations of cell phone footage and news reports we get quiet looks into the daily lives of the two; them playing with their kids and interacting with loved ones (the dynamic between Brittany and her partner Alexis is especially poignant). These scenes make the ones where they are standing toe to toe with local law enforcement and demanding accountability, speaking out at Ferguson town halls, or facing down impatient and angry drivers on a highway during a protest that much more compelling. It lets the audience to see the events in Ferguson and St. Louis from the community that it impacted amd resonated with directly.
In fact, that’s the strongest aspect of the documentary: how authentic and genuine it is. Several times during the film I had to catch myself remembering that the directors are capturing the movement as it unfolds. And more so, it never feels intrusive or like the perspective of a third party outsider. Folayan and Davis are very much part of the movement, the heralds of its rising, the messenger boy at the end of Camelot telling people of the good news.
I had the pleasure of watching the premiere in the presence of co-director Damon Davis, with a Q and A following directly after. He specifically mentions how he did not want to censor his perspective through objectivity. The result is a far more intimate and personal account of the Ferguson uprising. Beyond his personal insight into the creation of this, the most special parts were the chorus of voices on the screen chanting in unison “All we have to lose are our chains” and the voice of the man in front of me who joined along with the verses of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” as the credits rolled. The unflinching confidence, determination, and hope in the company of voices in both the film and audience show that this is a story that will not end when the house lights come up.