Sabaah Folayan is using art as activism in the dynamic new documentary Whose Streets?, which chronicles the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. Raw, powerful and insightful, the film offers an insider perspective from the activists. Directed by Folayan and Damon Davis, we get to know a collective of young people who are demanding change and willing to pay the price. Brittany Ferrell, Alexis Templeton, Tef Poe and many more become humanized beyond cable news clips in the riveting film.
We had to know more about this up-and-coming filmmaker Sabbah Folayan. In our one-on-one interview, we go deep about the film, hear critiques of President Barack Obama and discover the most revolutionary way to present love.
Why was now the time to tell the story?
When I went to Ferguson, I was immediately struck by what was being said on the news and what I was seeing in the street. I felt like the issue was emblematic of so many other issues that we’re facing in our country and for the story to be getting told so wrong. I felt like somebody needed to set the record straight.
In Ferguson, there has been a rightful mistrust of the media. So, was it hard to get people on board?
Yes and no. We definitely had to be really careful in terms of how we maneuver and how we built trust, but I think we had a certain type of consistency after people saw us night after night. Not just standing in the police line in the little media circle that they kind of pinned off, but actually coming and sitting side by side with the protesters. I think after a while people just started to trust our motivation.
There is a powerful moment of lesbian couple, who are also activists, getting married. As a filmmaker, why was it important for you to show that?
When we say that we’re fighting for our lives, and when we say that this movement is rooted in love, I think people don’t really believe that. A lot of people think that there’s just this unfounded anger we have with history or that we’re hung up on slavery or we’re mad because we’re Black. I think that showing the depth and the extent of the love that was wrapped in all of this is really important, to even mention who people were and showing the world that this is really people who were fighting because they wanted what was best for the people they cared about. Also, we talked about how we’re going to deal with homophobia, and I’ve personally felt like the best thing to do was to present their love and their relationship without apology and without explanations. We wanted to say, "What does it look like if we just took this love for granted and model it?" We should be able to accept and embrace love in whatever form that it comes in.
There were some critiques of President Obama in the film. Do you feel like Obama didn’t do enough stop police brutality?
No, I don’t think that he did enough and I have yet to see a President who has done enough. It’s like it’s taboo to admit that Black lives are important. We have never had any real attempt to rectify a very quantifiable wrong. It’s taboo to talk about the idea that maybe our lives matter or maybe there’s something deeply systemically wrong. He absolutely didn’t do enough and it was clear. I think, by some of his comments, when he said, “Trayvon could’ve been my son,” he probably understood, but he was an American president, and that was the thing that we’re trying to convey. I'm not saying that Barack Obama owed us more because he’s Black, but that this office and this structure and this system, regardless of who’s wearing the uniform, is going to continue to uphold the status quo.
If a young person is watching Whose Streets? 30 years from now, what do you want that person to get from it?
I hope it looks like a foreign reality to them. I hope it looks like something impossible and deeply unfamiliar. I hope that they can look back on it and be grateful for the people who fought and were vigilant and know that democracy is something that has to be protected and participated in at all times, we have a responsibility to participate. I really pray that this looks very unfamiliar to them.
Whose Streets? is in theaters now.
(Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)