August 8, 2017
August 9 marks the third anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—and, in honor his memory, on August 11, comes the release of Whose Streets?, a film that has been lauded as the Ferguson documentary. The Los Angeles-bred Sabaah Folayan, a writer and community organizer, headed to Ferguson from New York a month after the fatal shooting, and met up with artist and musician Damon Davis, her fellow director who hails from St. Louis, to chronicle the experience of activists in the devastated Missouri town. Their film has been praised as “outstanding and incendiary” by The Guardian and “a prime artifact of our freshly divisive racial moment” by Variety, seizing broad attention as the account of the movement from the perspective of those, often quite literally, on the ground and running.
But the documentary is also much more than that—and, for anyone who has seen the Ferguson protests firsthand, seems less incendiary than revelatory. Folayan and Davis achieve the near impossible: an intimate, character-driven political film. Because in between the disquieting footage of police brutality and public unrest, Whose Streets? also reflects on the love-fueled spirit of progress emerging from the heart of the country—one in which women continue to play a pivotal role.
Arguably, the film’s heart lies with a Ferguson family that comprises Brittany and Alexis and their daughter Kenna, whose chanting of the protest lyrics of Assata Shakur (the former member of the Black Liberation Army, who sought political asylum in Cuba after fleeing prison in 1979)—"It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains"—serves as a cogent motif throughout the narrative. Toward the end of the doc, one female activist proclaims, “This is not about hating the police. This is about loving Black people.” Whose Streets? plainly exposes how Ferguson and the movement that followed was never about spite, but survival—about trying to save and protect one’s beloved community.
I spoke with Folayan, who is at once humble and inquisitive, eager to jaunt down tangential paths that reveal themselves to be a short-cut to the truth.
I guess I took that for granted. I’m a woman and see the world from a feminine lens, but I didn’t personally start off with that particular objective. I went in looking to learn about trauma, but once it became about the larger movement, it switched over for me asking questions like, “How does this work? How can I be a part of helping?” What was happening on the ground in Ferguson was really beautiful—a whole ecosystem of organizers, people feeding people, people playing drums to keep the energy up, people bringing their kids. For the most part, it wasn’t this big flash-bang event; it was coordinated, long-term civil disobedience that was putting pressure on the local government. I wanted to figure out who were the people who were making this happen, the centers of this guiding energy. So naturally, immediately Brittany became a focus, or Kayla [Reed] become a focus—and also women who aren’t even necessarily seen in the film, or seen briefly, like Jamala Rogers, an elder in the community who was the only person I spoke to who had seen tanks come down on St. Louis before, in the 1960s. Including women was a natural byproduct of answering my initial questions. I say this not to distance myself from feminism or my women-centered lens, which will always be a part of my work, but to say that focusing on women is not some special event or some kind of diversity initiative. When you actually look at the work that’s being done, it is women at the center and the front, making up the ranks. Really that’s true everywhere, but particularly in this movement.
SF: It took a while to get to the point where we were that comfortable. Brittany had a lot of attention thrown at her during this time, and she did a great job fielding it and being really selective about who she shares her story with while also making sure that the message got out there. After awhile, media coverage started slowing down, and she turned inward to focus on all the consequences of this movement that don’t show up in the glamorous moments. And Damon and I were still there. Over the course of that time, we had conversations with her family on-camera, we had conversations off-camera, and we got to know each other. I’m really happy and feel really fortunate to know Brittany and still stay in touch. We definitely had a very organic relationship, which developed more so after the film. But the things that you see onscreen that feel intimate were filmed at least a year into knowing them—being together, doing interviews and talking, staying in touch, Kenna getting comfortable and learning how to ignore the camera.
SF: On a basic level, that’s really what it’s about, the secret ingredient. For Damon and me, that was the only way to we could go about this enterprise. You know, the subject matter is so dark. It’s hard—not just in the sense of getting an audience to connect and not get completely depressed, but for also for our own sanity and our own survival as we were documenting this, living through this, and asking ourselves, “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” The idea of love was at the front and center of all of our minds at all times. It’s what allowed our team to work at such a fast clip. It’s what allowed us to build trust between people. Everybody was so dedicated to it. I know it sounds really cliché, but on a literal level the film was about finding ways to empathize with people at all times—with those who are being silenced, to find some kind of clarity and meaning in the midst of chaos. At a fundamental level, it is that connection—that care for others, that comfort that we feel when we come together—that is really what keeps us here and keeps us rooted.
SF: I really appreciate that question. Absolutely, that was something passed on from my mom to me. There was something really amazing about being able to document the uprise—it almost felt like going back in time. My mom didn’t have the same particular experience, but I can just imagine my mom in her 20s, having me always with her by her side. She has a ton of integrity. She’s a person who will do the right thing in any situation, even when no one’s looking. It inspires me to move through the world that way. She has also definitely given me a deep feeling of love for Black people. For me, it’s not exclusive to Black people because I love human beings. But I love Black people in a special way because what our whole system does is make us feel so unloved at all times—so unwelcome, so much an afterthought, a kind of problem. I feel like Black people need this really, really deep and powerful love on a spiritual level. On a tangible level, what I really love and admire about Brittany is her willingness to take that risk to lead in protests, the kind of clarity and certainty with which she says, “This has to be done.”
SF: You can discuss activism in terms of lifestyle choices, different backgrounds, different places of comfort, but the truth of the matter is that it takes sacrifice in order to make change. And especially given the current political climate, there’s going to be a tipping point where we are going to have to come together and find a way to do something. Activism is something I was raised with, and something I was honored to document and share.
SF: One other thing about my mom is that she’s been to protests and is vocal about her views, but she takes a really personal approach to it. She tries to live her life in a way in which she’s always aware, and advocating, and make radical choices resistant to the status quo. When I was young, we moved to Hawaii. For about four years, we lived on Maui off the grid, with solar power and rainwater. We ate from the land. It was just this really, really beautiful experience, and I was home-schooled during that time. I really appreciate that now, even more than I could as a kid, the foresight that she had in my formative years, outside of South Central L.A., to give me that kind of preparation. Growing up in the hood—the inner city, as they call it—is traumatic. The kind of situation that got Mike Brown killed is the kind of thing that kids have to deal with walking back and forth from school. What I hope Whose Streets? suggests is not just to take your kids to the protests, but to truly invest your life in activism, and invest in it as a way of life.
SF: Absolutely. There are so many women that supported me and guided me through this—producers and filmmakers who have been through it before. Dawn Porter—who directed the documentaries Gideon’s Army and Trapped—was one of my early mentors, and she was just so brilliant and so on it; as well as Loira Limball, who works at Firelight Media. There’s also Lyric Cabral, who directed (T)error; and Jehane Noujaim, who directed The Square. These are women whose work definitely inspired me throughout the making of Whose Streets? But I agree that it’s sad that there are not more of us out there.