Fifty-six years later, James Baldwin’s words remain true: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”
In 2017, two films portraying police brutality chose to address this always timely issue in two very different ways. One does it well and the other does not. One is timely, instructive, and helpful to the movement, while the other is destructive to the dialog because it packages a tragic event as a blockbuster film capitalizing on the stereotypical theme of violence and pain.
Every generation of Black people has been required to reassert, reaffirm, and defend their humanity and most basic human and civil rights. Detroit, a film by Kathryn Bigelow, recounts events during the 1967 Detroit riots that left three Black men murdered and others severely beaten by White cops. Whose Streets?, a documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, explores the response to the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. They both cover the insane cycle of Black people being subjected to police targeting and brutality and a judicial system deeply entrenched in classism and racism. The similarities between the films end there.
In was July 2014 and people were still reeling from the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer. Communities were sent over the edge by graphic images of the slaughter of Eric Garner on July 17th and then Mike Brown, on August 9th. The movement began, again. Whose Streets picks up at Mike Brown.
Detroit is a story that’s been told before, ad nauseam. It’s a reenactment of a historical event where sadistic violence is meted out, the rule of law allegedly steps in, cops are tried, and invariably, the grave injustice is left to stand. It’s simply a recycled story, not of the first time but rather of a notorious time, when law enforcement executed Black people.
Whose Streets? does much more. It’s a historical account of a news event, and the story of a community reawakened by it to their dignity. It brings the viewer into the community of Ferguson, Missouri by incorporating social media and firsthand witness accounts of Brown’s murder and the ensuing protests. Inclusion of 21st century primary sources highlights notable discrepancies between citizen reporting and reporting by mainstream media. It shows law enforcement’s demonization of the Black community in Ferguson, first by leaving Brown’s dead, bloodied, and exposed Black body on display in the street under the sweltering August heat for over four hours, and then with its violent, militaristic response to the ensuing demonstrations. The Black community in Ferguson knew that they alone had to defend themselves against state violence in all forms.
Detroit fails to carry the same impact because it’s simply a recounting of an event – no doubt, a highly graphic and emotional one. There is little new that the viewer learns or is left to grapple with, which renders the movie both hollow and banal. Whose Streets? uses a subject that is obscenely trite, but takes us on a journey from the murder to its aftermath and long-term consequences.
Some assert that Bigelow, a White woman, has little standing to tell stories of Black experiences. That’s not the real problem with Detroit. It is lacking because it is two-dimensional and leaves the viewer with a sense of hopelessness. Whose Streets? proves that there is a way to portray a historical event, question what really happened, offer something that advances the conversation, and challenge the viewer to personalize the stakes.
Whose Streets? reads as an everyday person’s playbook for asserting and protecting their rights. The militarization of police forces, immigration raids, and indications from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he will use the Justice Department as a billy club to Make America Great Again, make clear the need for targeted communities to prepare.
Whose Streets? is also a revolutionary film. The Ferguson community embraces an intersectional approach to movement building led by queer Black women. This is not the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, when Lorraine Hansberry and Bayard Rustin were brushed aside for heteronormative, male leadership. It shows a strong, united, diverse, intergenerational Black community, focusing on rarely showcased narratives: a father in the home, building nurturing relationships with his children, and a young lesbian couple raising their daughter. Powerfully, it demonstrates parents teaching children how to understand the demonstrations, giving them a strong sense of self and self-worth, and instilling a responsibility to actively engage in pushing towards the world they want to live in.
Many White movie-goers cried and sniffled their way through Detroit. I wanted to ask them what they were going to do the next time a Black body fell? White tears and guilt are insufficient. Progress beyond self-flagellation towards action is essential. As Baldwin predicted, “the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.”
Ultimately, Whose Streets? forces viewers to ask themselves: who is my community and what do I need to do to protect it?