Movie Review: Whose Streets? (2017)

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Protest poetry is a thing I only recently really paid attention to. That’s on me. But in my studies, I found protest poetry from throughout history to be some of the most directly powerful stuff I read while studying for my Master’s degree. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” dramatizes the British Army’s response to civilian protesters and acts as a call to action for continued protests in the future. Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” is a rousing poem of courage in the face of sure destruction. Both of these poems (and many others!) have lived long lives, reappearing when new protesters find them and use them as inspiration and rallying cries. “The Mask of Anarchy” became important for the labor protests in American factories at the start of the 20th century, and “If We Must Die” was among the literature available to the prisoners at Attica and likely influenced their rebellion against their harsh imprisonment. Whose Streets?, a documentary about the Ferguson protests sparked by the murder of Michael Brown in the summer of 2014, documents in part how a poem of resistance from the 70s became again relevant in a new context.

Assata Shakur addressed the public in a recorded speech called “To My People,” also found in her autobiography, that she concludes with a small but powerful poem:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

In Whose Streets?, a film almost entirely comprised of footage shot by people participating in the protests and community members who saw the historical impact the protests would have, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis capture the poem’s resurgence as a call-and-response chant that became the backbone of the protests. Several times in the film we see Brittany Ferrell and Alexis Templeton begin the poem and run through it once, quietly. At a little above a normal speaking voice, one will state almost as if an afterthought that “It is our duty to fight for our freedom” and the other protesters will agree, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom.” After concluding that “It is our duty to win” twice, they’ll take it up to full volume. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom!” they’ll yell, and the crowd will respond in kind. By the end, there’s nothing so true as “We have nothing to lose but our chains!” because they’ve insisted so vehemently. One of the greatest strengths of this documentary is that it captures this spirit and sustains it over the course of the film. 

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Whose Streets? is a confrontational film. It doesn’t play fair. The “official” side of the story is told only through short cable news clips. That narrative is challenged, but none of the protesters are portrayed in a negative light. I think that’s fine. It is clear from the opening quote by Martin Luther King Jr. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” that the film will be taking the side of the people who rioted. I think it’s fine for any documentary about any subject to be one-sided, and especially fine when the story most people know is also quite one-sided. That’s the point of the news clips, to present the view most audience members will be bringing to the film. Even though I side with the protesters, I had a knee-jerk reaction to the sight of a burning gas station. Why do this, I wondered. What purpose does it serve. And then I kept watching, and I remembered that quote, and I came to see that sometimes the purpose of something is to express anger and that the destruction of property is not the same as the destruction of life, and that people get so angry about the former and write off the latter. These are lessons I had already learned intellectually, but the film confronted my safe knowledge with the real experience, even still abstracted by the camera.

Not content to confront, Whose Streets? asks us to see the protesters as people and to recognize the dehumanization they face in the court of public opinion. Brittney and Alexis aren’t just people who go out and express their anger and sadness, they also find a deep well of love for each other so easy to see on screen that you’d swear they were picked for their chemistry rather than their bravery. We see their daughter grow up in a world not new to violence but new to political action against that violence. We see people affirm their personhood as they face down lines of military-equipped police. And we see Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Michael Brown, say he saw the 18-year-old as a demon in an interview with ABC News. That kind of dehumanization is what the movie exists to combat. It happens when you see that these people march, chant, and even riot because they feel so much, not because they feel nothing at all. This is the very meaning of Black Lives Matter.

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I wouldn’t have thought that Whose Streets? would send me out of the theater feeling anything but shook. And shook I was! It’s as intense as It or mother!, and perhaps even more so considering the reality of its horror and tension. But the movie ends with another recitation of that poem, that chant. Alexis starts it and brings Brittney up for the second round. “We must love and support each other” they say as much to themselves as to the crowd surrounding them a year after Darren Wilson was not indicted for murder. But then they bring up their daughter, who brings a childish joy to the proceedings as she begins to take up the mantle. “It is our duty to win!” she screams. And I believe it, and I believe she’ll be leading the charge. This is a multi-generational issue, and it’ll be solved when the young continue the fight that the old have started. The poetry will still be there, ready to inspire them. The poetry will turn you from the responder to the caller. The movie will do what all great movies do: move you to hear what people are saying. Maybe you’ll join in, too.

 

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