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Whose Streets?
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by Jay Seaver

"An intriguingly more specific look at the question than expected."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: Starting as it does in the immediate aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting, "Whose Streets?" cannot help but be chaotic as it chronicles the immediate aftermath and the emergence of a local civil rights movement (or the rekindling of such) over the ensuing months. As such, many will find it unsatisfying; it answers few questions definitively and provides little resolution. But, perhaps, that's also what makes the movie successful; the chaos and confusion is honest.

Though it took a long time to sort out the Brown shooting (to the extent that it has been done), the aftermath played out on nearly every screen in America, but, for many, it was just the broad strokes, large anonymous masses clashing, with some anonymous member of the groups standing out when they did something particularly noteworthy in one direction or another. For their film, Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis embed themselves at the local level, looking at the activism of Ferguson, Missouri natives such as single mother Brittany Ferrell and one-man "CopWatch" David Whitt.

Folayan, Davis, and cinematographer Lucas Alvarado-Farrar were either on the scene quickly or local, because they seem to embed themselves into the nascent Black Lives Matter movement and the protesters fast enough to get the story from the start. By doing so, they get a particularly focused, close-up view that not only spends much of its time focusing on the way Ferrell and Whitt integrate their activism into their everyday lives, but often makes a point of showing how sometimes the broader movement can be seen as a nuisance by the locals, with Whitt in particular bristling at how it seems people from outside of Ferguson move to the center of the line when he's been the one documenting law enforcement's excesses for some time. At times, this winds up being a film about how, despite having a clear end goal, civil rights movements can have a lot of what is, ironically, called Brownian Motion in the sciences, with more chaotic activity in the middle of what should be a simple stream. Many locals worried about what lots of outsiders will stir up in their neighborhood or - especially in the case of the younger people - bristling at older figures expecting them to act as cogs in their long-term plan.

Throw in opportunistic looters, and what you often get is violence, something the makers of Whose Streets? don't shy away from. Though the extent of it was often exaggerated or downplayed by those with vested interests at the time, Folayan et al don't try to minimize incidents that make the residents look bad, pointing out that no matter where one is standing, it's scary to be next to something on fire. Still, it's noteworthy that the first proper segment of the film opens not with the friendly post-racial quote from Martin Luther King, but the one about how a riot is the language of the unheard. The filmmakers don't particularly condone violence, but, often, they seem to be leading back to that first quotation - if those with power are willing is willing to use violence on you, and outside aid is limited, the riot is not necessarily a good plan, but it's an understandable reaction in the absence of one.

Other quotations lead off other segments, most of them somewhat less fiery, as the film has a bit more difficulty in depicting people doing the work rather than demonstrating the necessity of it. It continues following Brittany a bit more than David, and shifts a bit more toward her personal story than the greater struggle, which at times can be a bit disappointing - there's a question about how tightly one should focus on an individual who is interesting but likely not pivotal in a movie ostensibly about a larger movement. She makes a good case study, though, and there's something genuinely hopeful about watching the people in her particular orbit as the film goes on - though the people of Ferguson may not get a lot of tangible, lasting victories, that she's able to find love and her young daughter is able to become more engaged with the cause is something to build on.

"Whose Streets?" isn't definitive or exhaustive; nothing about this chapter of the struggle for civil rights can be yet. But for those of us fortunate enough that we will likely never be subject to the same prejudices, it's a good look into the need to fight back even if everything isn't simple or perfectly aligned, a close-up look at something that could easily just become an abstraction. I can't speak to those experiences this addresses more directly, but I hope that it plays well to that audience as well, and look forward to hearing more from those who do have that sort of perspective.

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originally posted: 05/31/17 11:17:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2017 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2017 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Sabaah Folayan
  Damon Davis

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