That Justice is a blind goddess

Is a thing to which we black are wise:

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes

Langston Hughes, “Justice,” 1923

Nearly a century after Langston Hughes reflected on the inconsistencies of American justice, and 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, a new generation of activists is picking up the torch of Michael Brown, directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis's Whose Streets? (2017) documents the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement from the POV of the young activists that actually lived it.

Like a protest, the film's aesthetic is a bit DIY. Folayan and Davis take us through events as they were actually unfolding, often via handheld cams and smartphones in the streets, with only the occasional media footage. The production might not be as tight as other recent call-to-action films — like Academy Award nominee 13th (2016) — but the occasional shaky cam, in this case, adds a sense of urgency. We're on the streets with these 20-somethings as they get tear gassed, beaten to the ground with batons, and as they stand with arms interlinked in a barricade opposite police armed with war-grade weapons.

The film focuses primarily on two activists: 25-year-old Brittany Ferrell, a petite nursing student who's unexpectedly booming voice making her a masterful on-site organizer, and David Whitt, another Ferguson native, who clutches his handheld cam as he remarks “this is my weapon.”

Through both of their stories, but Brittany's especially, we get to see the juxtaposition completely missed in mainstream media — that these activists also go home to their families, in Brittany's case, an adorable 6-year-old, who didn't complete her homework but protests “I thought about it.” Brittany's a woman in two worlds: One day she's getting arrested for blocking traffic and the next she's shyly saying “yes” as her girlfriend proposes. Humanizing the movement is one of the most important things the film does.

While Whose Streets? is clearly an argumentative piece, the film argues, among other things, that the Ferguson Police Department was corrupt and systematically racist, it's also not entirely one-sided. The filmmakers have enough integrity to show the missteps the fledgling movement made along the way, namely the burning down of a QuikTrip gas station — and image that blazed its imprint on America's mind thanks to every major news channel.

The filmmakers' choice to film things entirely in present tense, as things were happening in 2014 without retroactive talking-head-interviews, aids the film in addressing the common criticisms of Black Lives Matter — criticisms like violence and looting. We see a young leaders stand up and say, “Hey, I know you're angry, but this isn't how we're going to do it.” The beauty of Whose Streets? is that we get to see a movement define itself right before our eyes.

The only missteps, perhaps, are in post-production. It's become trendy in both films (Citizenfour) and on TV (House of Cards) to raise tension with on-screen tweets and/or texts. Whose Streets?, based firmly in the millennial zeitgeist, does this liberally as well. It's a bit less successful here as the tweets are usually punchy summaries instead of calls to action — transition slides instead of dramatic devices. Whose Streets? is best when it stays in the moment.

We also get on-screen text via quotes from Civil Rights legends, but Whose Streets? never veers into the realm of sappy Hallmark special. Michael Brown remains an undercurrent, but his life story remains untold. We don't get baby pictures or heartfelt anecdotes like it's the first four minutes of Intervention. Michael Brown serves as the catalyst for this movie, but it will be another filmmaker's job to tell his story.