On opening night at the Sundance Film Festival, two films raised questions about how black Americans’ experiences can be more effectively shared and understood. “What can I do to help?”, asked white filmgoers following the premiere of Whose Streets?. The documentary follows several key activists emerging in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown in August of 2014, as they come to form Black Lives Matter. Again and again, the answer offered by director Sabah Folayan, producer Jennifer MacArthur, and the film’s protagonist, Brittany Farrell, was the same: “Don’t try to lead our struggle. Find your own ways to end racism.”
From pointers on demonstration safety to books by Audre Lorde and Frantz Fanon, Whose Streets? is sure to become an indispensable entry on an ever-expanding “Ferguson Syllabus“. Directors Folayan and Damon Davis use their own footage of marches, looting, and brutal police tactics, as well as interviews with activists, as well as TV news and social media images. At one point, Folayan, filming and off-camera, confronts a police cordon trapping her on a nighttime street amid looters running amok and shop windows exploding. “Go back, ma’am,” a baby-faced white police officer orders, denying her distance from her subject, treating her as one of her subjects.
Another lack of distance informs the film, which grants viewers access to the experiences of black organizers whose faces are familiar from news segments and Twitter. Farrell, co-founder of queer-rights collective Millennial Activists United, takes her daughter Kenna to school, then to a protest, then to her own wedding with MAU co-founder Alexis Templeton. David Whitt picks up a camera to become a “cop watcher” after witnessing Brown’s killing from his apartment window. Shortly thereafter, David reports, he (along with his wife and four children) lost his lease, owing to what he calls “a corporate decision”.
Such personal stories intertwine in the film with harrowing scenes showing street protesters as they confront armored vehicles and rubber bullets the size of crab apples. Editing creates a sense of continuity where movement politics become part of everyday life. Like earlier documentaries about police violence, The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) and Attica (1974), Whose Streets? serves both as an archival record and a tool to be used in an ongoing struggle.
Devin Blackmon and Kordell Johnson in Dayveon (2017)
If Whose Streets? depicts a black radical movement pushing against the American carceral state, Dayveon provides a fictional account of another black experience shaped but not wholly defined by US economics and politics.
Thirteen-year-old Dayveon (Devin Blackmon), bored with his “stupid” small-town life, still mourns his older brother Trevor (Errick Tillar), who was shot and killed in 2014. Looking for camaraderie, he turns to a local gang, to be “jumped in”. As the Bloods summon, strip, and rough him up, we see how he’s become inured to violence as a way to declare an identity. At the same time, we undergo an initiation of our own, as we do our best to understand his logic.
Some of this logic is illustrated as the film’s world takes shape. Director (also editor, producer, and composer) Amman Abbas assembled performers through word of mouth in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Wrightsville, a nearby town where the action takes place. All are first-time film actors from the same milieu as the characters. The cast collaborated with Abbas on script and dialogue. As a result, their interactions and argot feel authentic.
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Abbas, a son of Pakistani immigrants, grew up in Little Rock. During the Q&A at Sundance, he described doing extensive research for the film with gang members in the area. As a result, his story about a young black man at risk hits all the right — sometimes predictable — sociological notes. Dayveon punctuates his daily activities by pulling up Trevor’s photo in his smartphone, studying Trevor’s memorial poster, and playing with Trevor’s loaded gun. The gun, more than the gang initiation, forebodes catastrophe.
Yet, as the film unfolds, it surprises by mixing casual violence with casual tenderness. Dayveon’s serene older sister Kim (Chasity Moore) raises Dayveon and her little son LJ (Lachion Buckingham Jr.) on what seems like very little cash. Her good-natured car mechanic boyfriend Bryan (Dontrell Bright) offers, clumsily, to mentor Dayveon as a “kind of big brother.” No sharp line separates the family space and the gang world. Both are part of everyday life.
Close-ups, framed in a classic 4×3 aspect ratio, encourage viewers’ sympathy with Dayveon and his friend Brayden (Kordell “KD” Johnson), another Bloods newbie, as they hang out in wide Arkansas fields. In shaky nighttime car rides, Mook (Lachion Buckingham) schools new Bloods recruits in criminal activities. From these images of personal interactions, we cut to Dayveon riding a bike or shooting stones into the lake with Brayden, and then to chiaroscuro tight shots of Mook spinning yarns in a moving car. The careful framing helps us believe the kids are telling their own stories.
Dayveon’s existence grows more dreamlike as the narrative progresses. Log shots transform into a visual love poem to the landscape, as the soundtrack brims with ambient sounds, from stones hitting the water, to morning crickets, to the beehive in Dayveon’s back yard. Dayveon’s relationships to the lake and the bees recall the ways that Star (Sasha Lane) connected to the panoramas stretching before her in American Honey Both Dayveon and Star draw wisdom and resilience from the natural world. This resilience protects Dayveon from inevitable human cruelties. Still, we see how he seeks to imagine a future different from US statistical projections.