"WHOSE STREETS?" — 2½ stars — Brittany Ferrell, Tef Poe, Kayla Reed, Roy Russell; R (language throughout); Broadway
Director Sabaah Folayan’s “Whose Streets?” positions itself as a voice of the unheard in the midst of the Ferguson, Missouri, riots of 2014. With its collection of on-the-scene footage and interviews with local residents, it offers a unique and compelling perspective on the story. But its isolated viewpoint, which fails to provide enough context to tell the entire story, leaves “Whose Streets?” feeling incomplete and unlikely to shift audiences from whatever position they brought into the theater.
Folayan’s effort (which was co-directed by Damon Davis) begins with a dedication to Michael Brown Jr., the teenager who was shot and killed in an altercation with a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in August 2014. “Whose Streets?” jumps into the aftermath of Brown’s death, as residents gather outside the scene, berating local police for blocking the area during their investigation while Brown’s body lay unattended for several hours, and insisting Brown was executed with his hands in the air.
The narrative rolls forward chronologically as candlelight vigils and peaceful protests inspire the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” slogan that would soon sweep the country. But it isn’t long before peaceful protests become a riot, and a local gas station is looted and torched.
“Whose Streets?” provides a wealth of in-the-moment footage, mostly shot from the perspective of protesters as they square off against heavily armed riot police. The footage is captivating, and Folayan and Davis include interviews with numerous locals and activists, including various figures such as Brittany Ferrell, who became key to the protest moving forward. But the chaotic nature of “Whose Streets?” also makes it difficult to follow the cause-and-effect relationship of the protests, the riots and the police response, leaving the viewers to assume they are seeing exactly what their persuasion wants them to see.
Periodically, Folayan includes clips from press conferences and news broadcasts that are meant to advance the story while punctuating the increasing rage and frustration of the protesters on the ground. But local police are never interviewed, and frequently those elements — like a clip from an interview with Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown — seem to suggest that there is more to the story than we are seeing in the documentary footage.
The national footage also includes statements from former President Barack Obama, framed in a way that questions his reluctance to engage over political prudence.
“Whose Streets?” paints a portrait of the emerging movement, laying the seeds of Black Lives Matter, and drawing from the voices of local activists who seem to have different opinions on how to approach the problem. One early clip shows a local musician named Tef Poe speaking to a group, condemning the rioting and looting as he passionately insists that people “do it the right way.” But only moments earlier, another outspoken activist attempts to rationalize rioting and property destruction as long as it doesn’t lead to any physical harm to human beings.
With such a concentrated perspective, “Whose Streets?” feels like it would best work in conjunction with other works that would give audiences a more complete view of the different sides of the issues it addresses. As is, Folayan’s film is best defined by its most poignant moment, as an activist boldly declares, “This ain’t yo daddy’s civil rights movement.”
"Whose Streets?" is rated R for language throughout; running time: 90 minutes.