A young man named Dhoruba Shakur opens a plastic bag and removes small, charred objects. “This is some kinda shotgun shell,” he says. “These are the big rubber bullets that they shot. This is a CS smoke canister. This is a tear-gas canister.” In another life, Dhoruba could just as well be collecting shrapnel from the rubble after a World War II blitzkrieg — a connection he essentially draws by saying, “All of this is chemical warfare.”
And all of it was blasted on the city of Ferguson, Mo., in the days after the Aug. 9, 2014 killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, who was shot six times, including twice in the head, by police officer Darren Wilson. The event received international attention and was a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement. (Later, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.) The painful and elegiac documentary Whose Streets? focuses tightly on the violent unrest that affected Ferguson following Brown’s death. Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis begin the film by quoting from the Supreme Court’s insidious, Missouri-rooted Dred Scott case (1857), which denied citizenship to African-Americans. Then they segue into cell-phone videos of street protests that explode into war-zone anarchy. “This is not Iraq!” you can hear one woman screaming amid military vehicles and gas fumes.
Made in an impressionistic style with no narration, the movie is less sharp as an indictment of the media, using clips of clueless talking heads on CNN as a broad brush. It’s stronger as a collection of Ferguson voices and figures, such as rapper Tef Poe, who quiets a crowd in one scene by warning, “You ain’t gonna outshoot [the police].” In moments like those, Whose Streets? is a tragic yet essential portrait of a community under siege. B+