An activist in Whose Streets? (Magnolia Pictures)

The activism in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by the police officer Darren Wilson was a pivotal moment in recent American history. Now that incendiary moment has been captured in all its vitality by directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. This is a key document of an impactful, by-any-means-necessary struggle for social justice, featuring on-the-ground footage of protests, clashes, and confrontations with heavily armed and militarized police, as well as plenty of insight into the day-to-day life in Ferguson.

One of the striking things about the film is the lack of guidance and direction from veteran black intellectuals and activists. There’s no sage commentary from the likes of Angela Davis or Cornel West, contextualizing today’s struggle against white supremacy with the civil rights movement. This could be seen as a negative, implying the movement lacks direction and leadership, but the effect is that young intellectuals and activists have come to the forefront instead.

The undeniable star is Brittany Ferrell, a 25-year-old nursing student and mother, who leaves school but finds her calling in struggling against the state for social justice. She is a firebrand, short in stature, but filled with energy and righteous indignation, and she stages the culminating action of the Ferguson uprising, a bold, tense showdown with police on a busy interstate highway. It’s an all-out bid to express the intolerability of the current state of affairs.

Though Ferrell gets the most screen time, there are plenty of other inspiring, fascinating young activists, such as Kayla Reed, who is filmed in her home surrounded by stacks of revolutionary literature. We see her grow into her role as one of the intellectual leaders of the movement, sharpening her critiques of the nexus of corporate power and white supremacy that have had a stranglehold on black lives for years.

Besides the focus on certain charismatic leaders, the Ferguson community clearly came together to defend its rights to live and assemble, and to preserve its city, too. The protesters try their best to hold the police, and the state, accountable for their extrajudicial, unconstitutional actions. Important Twitter threads from influential activists are featured in an innovative way, and the ubiquity of smartphone cameras provides the bulk of the footage.

There are plenty of images and scenes that will get your blood boiling—police brazenly firing huge rubber bullets from high-powered rifles upon peaceful activists and brutal body slams and chemical weapons being deployed. But possibly the most potentially enraging scene is taken from an interview ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos conducted with officer Wilson. He is given a prominent place to share his point of view and to make the laughable claim that no police officer is racist, because policing is impossible if you are.

The film includes then-President Barack Obama’s responses to the Ferguson demonstrations, which seemingly convey an interest in neutrality—and make it clear that if the activists in Ferguson wanted action, they would have to force the issue themselves. The documentary does not offer much direct criticism of the federal government. However, the perceived lack of leadership opens up space for intellectuals and activists to come to the forefront.

This is a firsthand account of the militarization of police and the increasing barbarity of the state’s tactics for suppressing dissent (on par with another recent documentary on the subject, Craig Atkinson’s Do Not Resist), as well as a hopeful glimpse into the minds and hearts of the next generation of social justice activists. Whose Streets? is that rare film that will make you think and might even make you act.

Directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis
Released by Magnolia Pictures
USA. 100 min. Rated R