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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Whose Streets? is an often disturbing but historically relevant documentary that explores the aftermath of the August 9, 2014, shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in Ferguson, Missouri. Co-directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis use actual footage of protests, rioting, and police response, so you can expect to see violent, upsetting encounters and military-style action (police in full battle gear, bearing machine guns and tear gas) against Missouri's African-American citizens. These incidents are all more affecting because they're real. Language is extremely strong throughout, with many uses of "f--k," "s--t," the "N" word, and more. One young mother is featured; her story includes a growing romantic relationship with a fellow female activist. Focusing on the African-American citizens' perspective, the film offers little from the point-of-view of law enforcement officials or the city's politicians. It does, however, show how intended peaceful civil protest can sometimes escalate into rioting, looting, and angry unrest. And its themes include the power of teamwork, empathy, and perseverance.
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What's the story?
WHOSE STREETS? uses media coverage, citizen-shot footage, interviews, and in-depth personal stories to chronicle the events that took place after an unarmed African-American teen named Michael Brown was killed by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis mark the explosive encounters between police and activists, the militarization of the Ferguson police, and the growing anger and frustration of the African-American community toward what they perceive to be a biased law enforcement community. Told from the perspective of the leaders of and participants in Ferguson's protests -- specifically the Black Lives Matter movement -- the film doesn't ignore the fact that protests sometimes escalated to destruction, looting, and rioting. Viewers meet Brittany Ferrell, a luminous young mother; David Whitt, a committed member of Copwatch, activists who record evidence of police misconduct; and other passionate people who are saddened and angered by Brown's death. The national impact of the city's unrest is also part of the film's fabric.
Is it any good?
Compelling, disturbing, and at times inspirational, this film makes a strong case for peaceful activism by African-American citizens reeling from grief and futile attempts at institutional change. Brown's shooting is one of the key events that propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to prominence, and Whose Streets? clearly intends to document the movement's rise and significance by offering in-depth portrayals of some of those involved in Ferguson.
The directors do a masterful job of focusing their work, editing down what must have been an enormous amount of material. Their use of the film's featured characters is especially effective at eliciting a sympathetic response to what took place. Only a few brief shots of some of the faces of the young law enforcement officers -- who are quite obviously in far over their head -- reveal any of the ambivalence that those who were ordered to contain the protests were feeling. Though the film is divided into five sections, the divisions seem arbitrary; it works as a whole. A far cry from the national news media's take on the events -- which emphasized the rioting, fires, and civil unrest -- Whose Streets? is must-see viewing for mature audiences. It should promote thoughtful discussion and a deeper understanding of ongoing issues in a world still struggling with racial conflict.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can discuss how the events shown in Whose Streets? compare to what you might have seen in media coverage at the time. Were you surprised by anything you saw? Why do you think media outlets might choose to cover things like riots, fires, and lootings over constructive efforts to change culture?
The filmmakers present almost entirely one side of the events as they took place. What, if any, attempts were made to show the impact of the situation on the police and other law enforcement officials? Do you think the directors should have used a more even-handed approach? Why or why not? Are documentaries obliged to be objective?
Were you familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement before you saw this movie? How did this film affect your opinion about both the events in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter as a social phenomenon?
- In theaters: August 11, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: November 14, 2017
- Cast: Brittany Ferrell, David Whitt, Tef Poe
- Directors: Sabaah Folayan, Damon Davis
- Studio: Magnolia Pictures
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Activism, History
- Character strengths: Empathy, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 100 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout
- Last updated: June 24, 2020
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