Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement, Whose Streets?, released by Magnolia Films, is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis, Missouri. People from around the country came together as freedom fighters. Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis “know this story because they are the story.”
We recently had an opportunity to talk to them about the film and meaning and importance of what happened.
SERGIO: Watching your film, I was immediately reminded of previous riots of rebellion, going back to the ’92 LA riots, the ’68 riots across the country after the King assassination, the ’67 Detroit riots and the ’65 LA Watts riots. We’re talking about 50 years, and more things change the more that stay the same. Will things ever change or just doomed to just stay the same?
FOLAYAN: I think that is a question that I would like to pose to every single white man in power that I could meet. One of our biggest obstacles has been the prison industrial complex, which is just a retaliation of slavery essentially extrapolating free labor and physical labor from the value of the real estate that the prison sits on, and all the employment that it takes to run that system. Still, our physical bodies are having value extracted from them to further the economy of this country and whether or not things will change is really for the people who are holding power.
But as black people, we have tried to uphold the values which this country claims to stand for I think from the very beginning. We have resisted and tried guide this country into a different direction — always trying to push toward equality, always trying to push towards human rights. Dr. King before he was assassinated was talking about peace and ending the war in Vietnam. So I think we really always have to be aware to whom that question is directed at, because I hope that white people and those in power can change. But I don’t know necessarily what’s in their hearts, to create and live within this status quo.
DAVIS: Well, when we talk about when will things change how do we change that? The house was built on the walls of racism. You have to tear the house down and rebuilt it. It was built on the backs of black people, on the genocide of Native Americans, on stepping on the necks of women — it’s built on that. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where those things go away. There’s no incentive for me to even believe that.
SERGIO: But getting to the film, when you first went to Ferguson, did you know what was going to happen? Or did you just sense that something big was about to explode?
DAVIS: I’m from there, so I went to the protest because I just couldn’t sit by and not do anything. I just had a sense of duty to be out there. But I’m not going to lie to you, I didn’t know that it was going to be that big. I was in the middle of it, that it didn’t seem that big, but when I saw all kinds of people joining in and even with different accents and then when I went back to the computer and saw all the footage that’s when I realized how big and how far-reaching it had become.
FOLAYAN: I did at the time feel how big it was, but I didn’t know what it would become, what it would look like. That whole summer before Michael Brown was killed, I had a sense that from beginning really active on social media and posting things about politics and looking at their places in the world feeling kind of frustrated and really powerless. So when people took to the streets in Ferguson and they sustained it day after day after day, it felt historical it. It felt like it was our generation’s time.
But I also have to credit the organizers because they were very strategic very thoughtful. They had a great job of harvesting the incredible movement and energy. There was a lot of communication strategy that went into it. It didn’t just happen by chance. There was a lot of work that went into it being the big deal that it was. And let me say something that people sort of underestimate. We didn’t choose the focus on the national scope in our film because we felt there was much more power in being the specific story of St. Louis and Ferguson. But it’s worth mentioning that no movement is an accident, no movement that becomes mainstream just happens. So it was something that organizers were positioning for it to be the opportunity for our generation to put up that challenge and people responded in that way.
SERGIO: In a way, I think your film belies the notion that millennials are lazy, apathetic and superficial. More interested in the latest smartphone than getting involved politically. But things have changed haven’t they?
FOLAYAN I think a lot of people have woken up. It’s a coming of age time for us. People are having kids and getting settled into their lives and now they’re trying to figure out what is their place in the world…who they’re going to be. So I think a part of that energy is going into the movement. But I think also that there were a lot of people who were always awake and I think this movement was not only just made up of millennials who work and continue to do work. There were millennials who were front and center and who were putting up their bodies on the line, but there was also a lot of wisdom from other people who have been a part of the movement from the past who have been fighting and shaping in a real tactical way.
So this has worked in being a sort of cross-generational effort. And I also think that our political engagement also needs to be read through the lens of the world we were handed and the dream that we’re sold. A lot of us were told after the civil rights movement that “the problem” was solved and we grew up believing that because we had affirmative action and the Civil Rights Act and we needed to be grateful. But people were really having the conversation about a post-racial America.
DAVIS: It was a flashpoint, but there were elders in every tipping point but I think people just romanticize the 1960s a lot because of an image control thing. It may look like disorganization today from some older person’s viewpoint, but if people back then had a cell phone at every Martin Luther King, Jr. table meeting or Malcolm X speech, it might look different. They might look a little more human than being deified. I didn’t grow up in that time, but my parents were in their 20s during the Civil Rights movement and they way they talk about it, they don’t talk about it the way it looked in Selma or Eyes on the Prize. The way they talk about, it’s much more humanized. It’s easy to talk now and say how radical you were back then, but I think people sometimes get too distanced from the actual time and their memory gets colored in a certain way.
SERGIO: You have to admit that one of the great advantages that filmmakers like you have with your film is that all the new technology and access to getting information. There’s an immediacy and people have the capacity now to get the truth unfiltered instead of someone else deciding what you can or can’t see what they want you to know or don’t.
DAVIS: I agree wholeheartedly
FOLAYAN I agree.
SERGIO: Well that easy Thank you! (laughs)
DAVIS: And I hope that people who are conscious know that we are doing that in the film. We decided a long time ago that we had to get the real story out. because you’ll read somewhere something and by the time you get home it’ll be something completely different, you know what I mean? Someone had to tell the story from the people’s point of view That was our main goal in doing this.