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Movie review: ‘Whose Streets?’ will leave you shaken

“OMG, I just saw someone die.” That tweet from an eyewitness to Michael Brown’s murder in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, instantly sets the mood and tone of “Whose Streets?,” an absorbing documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis that puts you shoulder to shoulder with citizens of a city under siege by its militaristic police department.

Make no mistake, Brown was no choirboy. But did he really need to be shot a dozen times (twice in the head) for disrupting traffic on Canfield Drive, as his killer, police officer Darren Wilson, claimed? In November 2014, a grand jury said he did, but an already seething group of Brown’s African-American neighbors disagreed, taking to the streets in anger. But was the ensuing violence the work of trouble-makers and opportunists as the bubble-headed bleach blondes on network TV led us to believe? Or, was it a desperate stand against a systematic racism that infiltrates law enforcement in just about every major American city?

Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., the filmmakers make the point that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and back it up with overwhelming evidence via tweets and smart-phone footage contributed by the protesters themselves. And what you see and hear are loud, vociferous voices expressing their disrespect for cops they feel disrespect them. But police are human, and they have a breaking point. And when it’s reached after hours of being verbally assaulted, they retaliate — not with words — but with armaments: Tear gas, rubber bullets and most disturbingly, dogs. For all the world, it looks like Selma, Alabama, circa 1964, not a modern day St. Louis suburb. As one observer notes, it’s 2014, but in St. Louis it’s still the Antebellum South.

And the citizenry has the findings of a U.S. Department of Justice report to back them up, an investigation that found gross abuses of African-Americans by everyone from the police to city fathers, who used trumped-up traffic-ticket fines to bleed poor black men of their money and keep the ones who couldn’t pay incarcerated. So the anger is justified. But what strikes you about “Whose Streets?” is how it puts a human face on the marginalized people of color in Ferguson. They are rightly fed up, and Michael Brown is the last straw.

The night of his death on Aug. 9, 2014, we see them peacefully taking to the streets— their streets — for a candlelight vigil that turns ugly as soon as the first tear-gas canister is fired by a member of the gauntlet of law enforcement dressed in riot gear, toting semi-automatic rifles and backed by tanks and helicopters. It has all the markings of an all-out military invasion, thus the film’s title. It’s the response of a paranoid governor, who the residents say has no empathy or understanding of why they are demonstrating.

The establishment’s indifference is deafening, capped by the suspicious, gas-fueled fire that consumes a makeshift roadside memorial to Brown that was nothing more than a mountain of stuffed teddy bears. As one neighbor notes, the fire department arrives to extinguish the blaze, but no investigation of the arson ever follows. That the act was purposeful on the part of the police is pretty much confirmed when a crew is later sent to remove the flowers left on the spot where Brown’s body laid in the middle of Canfield Drive for more than four hours.

The upside to the film, if there is one, is the multiple examples of men and women finding their voices, becoming activists by leading non-violent acts of civil disobedience, as our constitution allows. We meet a half-dozen of these future leaders and admire their determination and moxie. But nothing compensates for the anger fueled by a corrupt government using force to exact its will over a people without wealth and clout. And as the residents note, the fish rots from the head, meaning Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who literally called out the dogs at first sight of black folks gathering in the street. Compare that to the reaction in Charlottesville last month where Nazis and white supremacists amassed with little or no police response.

In the end, “Whose Streets?” leaves you shaken, on the verge of tears, as we’re left to wonder what’s become of an America that espouses freedom, but more and more works to take our liberties away, up to and beyond killing an unarmed 18-year-old kid. Where did we go so wrong? Unfortunately, “Whose Streets?” has to answers, but it has a plethora of questions we need to ask of our leaders, and ourselves.

“Whose Streets?”

A documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis featuring the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri.

(R for language throughout)

Grade: A-

A scene from the documentary 'Whose Streets?' [Magnolia Pictures]