‘Whose Streets?’ pushes back on what we think we know about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri New documentary is a potent combination of social and media criticism

Deep into Whose Streets?, the new documentary about Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, there’s footage of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Brown, giving an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” Wilson tells him. At the screening I attended, there was an audible mix of gasps and laughter from the audience.

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis spent much of the film’s run time up to that point establishing just how much racism lurked within the Ferguson Police Department and the city government. A 2015 report from the Justice Department established that Ferguson provided about as clear an illustration of institutionalized racism as could possibly exist: The city not only targeted black residents for tickets and arrests they couldn’t afford, it was also using the revenue from such stops to fund the nearly all-white police force. The court clerk, police captain and police sergeant were all implicated in sending and receiving racist emails, including one that compared President Barack Obama to a monkey.

Protester Brittany Ferrell hoists a bullhorn as her daughter hugs her in a scene from ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

And yet here was Wilson telling a national television audience that racism was anathema to policing.

Whose Streets? arrives in theaters Aug. 11, marking the third anniversary of Brown’s death (Aug. 9, 2014) and the uprisings that followed it. It’s a deeply moving work, and the passion of both the filmmakers and their subjects is palpable. “FYI I was literally homeless throughout the first year of production. Worked as a canvasser and put money back into the film,” Folayan, an activist, theater geek and former advocate for prisoners at Rikers Island, tweeted recently. Davis is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is currently featured in the permanent collection at the Blacksonian (aka, the National Museum of African American History and Culture).

The focus of Whose Streets? is the residents of Ferguson and St. Louis who keep marching and screaming for justice till they’re hoarse, who keep agitating long after the national media has turned its attention elsewhere. It establishes the movement for black lives in Ferguson as one driven by young people such as rapper Tef Poe, who are fed up with being targeted by police, and others like organizer Brittany Ferrell and her partner, Alexis Templeton, as well as Copwatch recruiter David Whitt, who want better for their children.

Whose Streets? is likely to serve as a counterweight to Detroit, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about the 1967 Detroit riots and the police murder of three unarmed black people at the Algiers Hotel. It’s not necessarily fair to compare narrative films like Detroit to documentaries, but there’s a similarity in the dynamic between the two that existed with Nina and What Happened, Miss Simone? Both Whose Streets? and What Happened, Miss Simone? end up correcting, or at least augmenting, the record of ahistorical narrative films that struggle with details in which race is central.

Nina made the mistake of casting Zoe Saldana as Simone, then putting her in makeup to darken her skin and prosthetics to make her facial features more closely resemble Simone’s. Detroit fails to imbue its characters with any depth or humanity and devolves into a slog of racist white police officers terrorizing a group of people in the Algiers.

Bigelow’s herky-jerky camerawork and editing in Detroit deliberately create a sense of chaos. Whose Streets?, by contrast, presents real footage of Ferguson buildings in flames after Brown’s death, but the overall effect is far more nuanced. It’s much easier to get a sense of what happened in Ferguson as pockets of violence and property damage pockmarked peaceful, if emotional, protests. Whose Streets? refuses to equate property damage with the loss of human life.

Folayan and Davis offer a potent work of media criticism too. Folayan and Davis communicate just how much cable news, by repeatedly and selectively broadcasting the most violent, hectic footage, was responsible for making Ferguson seem like a war zone whose residents were animalistic and out of control. That narrative was furthered by a distant, largely white media corps accepting police reports as gospel. Whose Streets? challenges that by juxtaposing footage of Ferrell and her cohorts protesting to shut down a highway in Missouri with the official police account of what happened, in which the arresting officer accused Ferrell of yelling out “tribal chants.”

For a moment, we also see what it means to send black journalists into a situation like Ferguson, where police in tanks and armored vehicles are shooting rubber bullets, smoke grenades and tear gas (a chemical agent that the Geneva Convention prohibits in warfare) at the city’s black residents. There’s a clip of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ernie Suggs walking through Ferguson at night with his hands above his head as police bark orders at black protesters. The police draw no distinction. He’s black, so he might as well be one of them.

Brittany Ferrell leads a line of protesters as they face off with police in ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The film gives voice to a community that’s reeling, mournful and frustrated. It has little faith in a government that’s failed it repeatedly. Spliced with footage of white public officials delivering statements that are often canned and worded to avoid legal liability, Whose Streets? brings the idea of two Americas, and two wholly different realities, to life. “Question normal,” it demands of its audience.

Despite the gravity of its subject matter, Whose Streets? has moments of dark levity. One interview follows a clip of President Obama giving a statement about Brown in his trademark style of measured reason.

“I’m waiting on me to have a black president. I still ain’t had me one,” a Ferguson resident named Tory says. “Wasn’t he a constitutional professor? Ain’t no constitution in Ferguson. Tell that n—- he need to teach a new class or bring his a– to Ferguson … and figure out why we ain’t got no constitution.”

Whose Streets? is understandably close in spirit to The Hate U Give, the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas published earlier this year. The Hate U Give is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who is the sole witness as her unarmed best friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. The book, which is heavily influenced by Ferguson, is slated for a film adaptation starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby and Lamar Johnson. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that the film version of The Hate U Give and Whose Streets? will serve as cinematic bookends to understanding what black people went through in Ferguson before and after Brown’s death.

The documentary ends on a hopeful note, but no one in Whose Streets? is a Pollyanna, least of all Ferrell. She’s open about the fact that she’s taking prescription medication to treat anxiety and says she’s not sure the justice she and her partner are seeking will come in their lifetimes. They’re counting on another generation of troublemakers and revolutionaries to carry on. They’re raising one in their elementary-school-aged daughter McKenzie, seen in the film with her mothers leading a crowd and screaming as loud as she can, “WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!”

The ‘Incredible Jessica James’ and the necessary arrogance of black women In both Jessica Williams’ new movie and ‘Girls Trip,’ black women reaffirm their own value

In The Incredible Jessica James, available on Netflix starting Friday, Jessica Williams plays a 25-year-old playwright who’s just gotten out of a relationship. When we meet her, she’s already grown impatient with the meaningless small talk of the dating scene.

In a line she improvised during a take, Williams-as-James tells a potential suitor, “I’d rather have my period nonstop for a year than continue this portion of the conversation.”

“I think we really just wanted to portray a female character that is unapologetic,” Williams, the former Daily Show correspondent, said in a phone interview. “Like, she’ll apologize for things she does wrong, but we didn’t want her to be like, ‘Sorry I’m alive!’ I feel like oftentimes, women can be written in a way where they’re really apologetic. I wanted to play this character … where she really gets to drive her narrative. There’s a line where she’s like, ‘I know I’m dope. Everybody likes me. I know I’m dope.’

Chris O’Dowd and Jessica Williams in a scene from ‘The Incredible Jessica James.’

Courtesy of Netflix

“We wanted to be like, well, what if a woman had self-confidence and the crux of the movie wasn’t about her figuring out self-confidence? That narrative has been done, and we wanted to try something a little different.”

That quality of self-confidence links Williams in an interesting way with Regina Hall, who stars in the raunchy comedy Girls Trip, which opened last weekend (aside from the fact that they both worked with Jessica James writer-director Jim Strouse in the 2015 romantic comedy People Places Things).

We see both characters, Williams in The Incredible Jessica James and Hall in Girls Trip, talking themselves up. They give themselves little verbal boosts, even though they’re at different points in their lives.

Hall plays a woman for whom confidence should be a sure thing. Her character, Ryan Pierce, is 40-something and firmly established in her career as a writer and lifestyle expert, a sort of Arianna Huffington-Oprah hybrid. But she’s also a woman used to lifting herself up, and her go-to mantra, especially in moments of vulnerability is “I am smart, I am beautiful, I am powerful.”

Girls Trip and The Incredible Jessica James aren’t the only projects that make a point to show this affirmation of self. There are the sticky notes of encouragement that Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) leaves sprinkled around her house for herself in the BET series Being Mary Jane. There are the confidence-boosting raps that Issa Dee (Issa Rae) spits to herself in bathroom mirrors on HBO’s Insecure. Even my own sister, who is one of the most confident, capable, self-possessed women I know, has a note scribbled to herself on her bathroom mirror. It says simply: “You got this!”

This confidence can seem a bit incongruous for the Jessica James character at times. Although her day job is teaching theater and playwriting to school-age children, she can’t find a theater company or a fellowship that wants to produce her plays. She writes at a desk in front of a wall filled with rejection letters but never lets professional success determine her self-worth. That’s not an easy lesson to learn. And when you consider that Jessica James is 25 (Williams is about to turn 28), it’s pretty inspiring.

There’s a scene in which James is negotiating a hookup with Boone (Chris O’Dowd). Jessica is trying to charm her way into his apartment after their second date. They’ve already slept together on the first one, but Boone, who is several months removed from divorcing his first wife, wants to take things slow.

Jessica has a different idea about what should happen.

“Good night,” says Boone.

“Really?” she responds. “Boone. Boone. Boone. Boone. I’m a unicorn. That’s gotta mean somethin’.”

Sarah Jones (as herself) and Jessica James (Jessica Williams) meet for the first time at a playwriting retreat in ‘The Incredible Jessica James.’

Courtesy of Netflix

Boone relents, because really, who’s going to turn down Jessica? “We can always say good night in the morning!” she says cheerfully.

I asked Williams if there is any additional meaning in the fact that the woman we’re watching live her life without unnecessary apology is black.

“I think sometimes, when you’re trying or not, being black can be political,” Williams said. “And I think in this particular movie, it’s very valid to have movies where race is discussed — and that needs to happen more — but I think it’s progressive as well to have movies where race isn’t discussed and the character just gets to sort of exist. There’s interracial dating happening, and while it’s not discussed, it’s still interesting because she is a black woman. I think it’s important and also not necessarily majorly important to this story in particular.”

James’ blackness doesn’t announce itself in Jessica James, which takes place in New York. She lives in “deep, deep, deeeeeeep Bushwick,” as she says in the film — not, say, Bedford-Stuyvesant or Crown Heights. Her ex-boyfriend Damon (Lakeith Stanfield) designs cellphone cases for a living. There’s an unspoken irony in having the film’s lead be black while her best friend is white, a nifty subversion of the “black best friend” trope. On top of that, the white best friend’s name is Tasha (Noël Wells). Whether it was intentional or not, I found it clever and I totally snickered at it.

A rhythm and a trust develop between actresses and the writer-directors who know how to exploit their comedic sweet spots. There’s Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow (it helps that they’re married to one another), Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig, Madeline Kahn and Mel Brooks, and Hall and director Malcolm D. Lee. We may be witnessing the fruits of a similar creative partnership in Williams and Strouse. Strouse is comfortable with Williams improvising lines, and the result is a character who speaks in a voice that feels completely natural.

“We work well together because Jim is very thoughtful and he thinks about things before he says them. He’s a fan of mine, and he has been for a while, and I’m a fan of his,” Williams said. “But he really likes my podcast Two Dope Queens [with Phoebe Robinson] and my work on the Daily Show, and so he’s always been really respectful. He’s just a great writer. I’m sensitive, and it’s really nice to work with him.”

But I think Strouse sees something in Williams as a black woman, even if he doesn’t scream it in his scripts, the same way he saw something in the talented Hall. There’s a power in seeing a self-aware black woman on screen who simply proceeds through life like she hasn’t been defeated by it, like she still feels she can make a difference, like she still believes that the world is hers.

Maybe that’s why so many black women spend so much time telling ourselves how wonderful we are: It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we say, “I’m smart and beautiful and powerful,” the more we insist that we’re “unicorns,” the more we make it so.