Three years ago Michael Brown, 18, black and unarmed, was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., only weeks after Eric Garner's death by chokehold in New York. While Brown's body lay in the street, friends and neighbors rose up in grief and outrage, and a 21st-century civil rights movement came into urgent focus.
Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis were among those on the front lines of the protests against police violence and their on-the-ground, from-the-heart documentary "Whose Streets?" communicates that urgency from the inside out — not as news story or social theory, but as communal experience and awakening.
Activists as well as artists, Folayan and her co-director aren't interested in parsing the conflicting reports about the shooting or explaining the community's response via capsule history lesson, à la Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit." Jumping straight into the chaos and horror — "I just saw someone die," an eyewitness tweets — their film insists that the only necessary context is the events themselves.
Using cellphone videos and their own videos, Folayan and Davis reveal a neighborhood under military-style occupation. Candlelight vigils are met with tanks, rubber bullets and teargas. The National Guard is deployed.
The film might have tied things together more pointedly — activist Kayla Reed discusses the absurdity of valuing a building over a life, yet the filmmakers assume the audience knows that while Brown's white killer, Darren Wilson, served no time while black protester Josh Williams was sentenced to eight years for setting a fire in a convenience store--but its heart-wrung potency is undeniable. That's true whether the directors are staring down systemic neglect or swept up in the visionary optimism of the young grassroots leaders who emerge from Ferguson's smoke and rubble, putting themselves on the line with acts of civil disobedience and countersurveillance.
The whole world may have been watching Ferguson burn, but "Whose Streets?" looks beyond the media narrative to offer what Davis has called "black people seeing black people" — validation, encouragement and love in the face of a bitter legacy of injustice.
Rating: R, for language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In select theaters