When Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis learned of the tragic police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson during the summer of 2014, both felt called upon to take action on behalf of the nation’s African-American community.
Although both Folayan and Davis had set their sights on immortalizing the issues surrounding Brown’s death soon after the riots began, neither of them had any idea their next big venture would be creating a documentary based on the events they were watching play out on their television screens.
“In the beginning, I was very guilty that I wasn’t doing anything, and that’s kind of what brought me out … after two days of sitting there and being black and being from a family that taught a radical revolutionary idea about things, I kind of felt like I was letting my parents down,” Davis said. “So that’s what brought me out initially … and then when I saw that it wasn’t what the media had made it [Ferguson protests] into, I just really decided that I had to do more.”
Seated side-by-side inside Lincoln Square’s historic Davis Theater earlier this year days before the cinema hosted the 2017 DOC10 Film Festival, Folayan and Davis didn’t come across as two individuals who have just released a critically acclaimed feature documentary. They wore their casual clothing like they donned their demeanors, with subtlety, reservation and sensibility. From the moment the interview began, it was clear that these breakout filmmakers didn’t come seeking a spot in the limelight, but rather one in the heart of social protest.
Co-produced and directed by Folayan and Davis, “Whose Streets?” is the product of the artists’ joint effort to take audiences into the homes of families affected by Brown’s death and into the widespread riots that overwhelmed Ferguson for weeks afterward. The film offers a raw, honest look at the pressures and dangers that constantly leer at the country’s African-American community, relying on first-hand accounts and heartbreaking actual footage to fully convey the depth of the nation’s police brutality crisis.
After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary made its run at DOC10, Chicago’s documentary film festival. Since then, the film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from news outlets around the world, garnering praise for its unfiltered and up-close approach .
Both Davis and Folayan said they felt immense respect and gratitude toward the families who agreed to take part in their documentary. Folayan said it was their duty to justify each one’s unique, moving story.
“Being out there with people and knowing what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis out on the streets, and asking them to knock on their door one more time and to meet us there early and ask these questions, have them relive it—I think it just raised the stakes for us,” Folayan said. “If we are going to intrude into people’s lives in this way, it has to be worth it, and it has to matter, and we have to honor them and, you know, show their humanity and do justice to this access that they’re allowing us to have.”
These intimate and emotional real-life narratives sustain Folayan and Davis’s documentary, interwoven with samples of tweets made by the public during the time of the riots and quotes by famous African-American authors. Folayan said she believed that including powerful quotes from writers like Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Sojourner Truth connected the film to the ongoing racial struggles that have plagued the African-American community for generations.
“All of these writers are part of a really long tradition of black sociology, black social analysis that I think is really the most insightful and probably the most historically balanced impressions of what life in this country is like,” Folayan said.
Folayan said that she was a pre-med student from Columbia University working at a non-profit when she decided to express her interest in social justice in a way that she felt was “more fulfilling.”
Folayan said that she decided to travel to St. Louis to get a better sense of what was taking place in Ferguson after the posts that she was making online about Brown’s death started receiving a lot of feedback. Upon witnessing the events unfolding in Ferguson, she quickly decided to create a feature documentary and began searching for someone living in St. Louis who could collaborate with her on her film. After discovering Davis, who was living in St. Louis at the time with hopes of making a film, her dreams of creating a Ferguson documentary became a reality.
As an award-winning interdisciplinary artist with a permanent collection of multimedia works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Davis is no stranger to the idea of art as a platform for creative expression. For him, film is the “most accessible, most encompassing art form,” which made it the best medium for interpreting the chaos that surrounded the Ferguson uprisings.
For both directors, creating “Whose Streets?” was a difficult yet life-affirming process. Davis noted how his favorite aspect of the film’s production was not the finished product itself, but the positive life changes that resulted from it.
“I think throughout this, I’ve made lasting relationships that will probably last me for the rest of my life, and I think that that’s the best thing,” Davis said. “I made family out of this situation for me, personally.”
The documentary’s dramatic focus on racial tension in America coincides with the directors’ belief that there’s a pressing need for change in U.S. politics. For Folayan, amending America’s social problems is the first step in securing the rights of the people and establishing a more just society.
“Democracy is based on the idea of citizens holding their government accountable. The citizens are the people who have the power, and I think we’ve lost all sight of that,” Folayan said. “We have to start thinking differently ourselves, and we cannot rely on people who hold power to exercise it responsibly.”
“Whose Streets?” was released nationwide today, Aug. 11. The film can be viewed at Chicago’s AMC River East (322 E. Illinois St.), Regal Webster Place (1471 W. Webster Ave.) and Studio Movie Grill Chatham (210 W. 87th St.).