This year, Jan. 15 stands as our nation's official recognition date for the annual federal holiday commemorating the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Here locally it also serves as the area premiere of the highly acclaimed 2017 independent documentary feature "Whose Streets?"
The film offers a revealing look at the daily lives, trials and tribulations of residents of Ferguson, Mo. In August 2014, the small St. Louis suburb found itself caught up in a tumult of public protests and violent riots following the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer.
Under the harsh glare of international scrutiny, thismajority-African-American community of less than 22,000 residents emerged as the epicenter of the debate over both the subjugation of African-Americans as well as the recent trend toward militarization of local police departments across the country. It also stands as the site of the first-ever in-person national protest by the controversial social justice activist organization Black Lives Matter.
"Whose Streets?" was co-directed by first-time filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. It premiered in competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival after having received production assistance with editing and sound design through the Sundance Institute. It ultimately saw theatrical release in the fall (on the third anniversary of Brown's death) through respected indie distribution company Magnolia Pictures.
Composed of intense, point-of-view scenes shot in the thick of the chaotic riots and street protests, as well as intimate portraits of a half-dozen Ferguson-area residents, it has been hailed by scores of critics worldwide as an essential visual document of the current state of race relations in the United States.
It was also decried (by a much smaller number of reviewers) as being an imbalanced film which focuses on the protesters' perspective at the expense of a more nuanced and evenhanded examination of the various views and emotions on both sides of this explosively divisive situation.
Savannah-based musician (and head of Girls On. Media) Shena Verrett attended the film's debut at Sundance and said she "just knew" she had to bring the film to Savannah, as it did not make it here during its brief cinematic run. Her goal has come to fruition with this special, one-show-only engagement at The Stage on Bay, a large live music venue just West of the Historic District which is said to be looking to expand the scope of its offerings. In addition to a screening of the film, attendees who opt for a VIP pass will meet afterward at a wine reception with Brittany Ferrell - one of the political activists featured prominently in the motion picture - who will also engage in a post-show Q&A session.
"It's not every day that a 27-year-old black female in med school directs one of the most important films of our generation," Verrett says. "I'm just doing my part by sharing it with my Savannah community."
Co-director Damon Davis discussed the film and its reception with Do Savannah in advance of this MLK Day event.
Can you speak a bit about the initial genesis of this project?
Damon Davis: Sabaah and I begin our partnership around December of 2014. We followed several different people over the course of the next two years, and the stories that were compelling organically rose to the top and guided the story we tried to tell about the broader community.
Many documentarians often find the crux of their film's narrative arc only appears deep into production, or in the editing process, and the film winds up quite different than what they may have envisioned. Was that the case with "Whose Streets?" Did your experiences making the film result in any drastic changes from what you assumed would be the thrust of the film? Or, did the footage and interviews you captured only reinforce that initial perspective?
Davis: I think it was both. We kept an open mind and tried to let the story tell us what it needed to be. We had a story in mind and I think we achieved what we set out to, but it was definitely not exactly what we'd planned. I don't think there were any really drastic changes. We just envisioned a film that centered on multiple people, and in the end, that was not exactly what happened. Brittany and David (Whitt) ended up being our lens (into the story) and the other characters wound up supporting (that narrative).
The movie has been well-received by critics. Is your film also serving in some way as a recruiting tool for future community-oriented, grassroots political activists?
Davis: That was one of the goals from the start, to make this film a tool for activists. I am grateful that it is well-received by critics, but we made it for black people that understand and can relate to these conditions.
I am glad people that were not acclimated to these realities have been awakened. But for me personally, they were not my target audience. It was for those that live it every day. We wanted to put up a mirror to our community and let them know how beautiful and strong they are, to inspire and give them hope and resilience in this age-old fight.
What would you say to someone who does not normally take in politically focused message movies to encourage them to see the documentary?
Davis: I would say that every movie has some sort of political agenda, whether you see it or not. Even if the director sets out with an agenda or not. We're all making things informed by our point of view, and which reinforce our own ideals about the world.
Thus, everything gives you a message and those messages are very political Ì¶, in the broader sense of the word. So, I would say this film is no more or less political than any other film. It is simply a glimpse into the lives of everyday people that are living under extreme conditions, and trying to find a way to survive.
IF YOU GO
What: "Whose Streets?"
When: 6 p.m. Jan. 15
Where: The Stage on Bay, 1200 W. Bay St.