Director Damon Davis in Conversation
Co-Director Damon Davis joined us for a screening of his film Whose Streets? on October 12th, 2017 the following is a transcript of our moderated conversation and Q&A with the audience at Amherst Cinema.
George W. Myers: That’s the longest and only standing ovation we’ve had for a filmmaker, and truly deserved. Thank you so much for making the film and for joining us. It’s truly deep and there is so much to unpack. One of the things that this film really drills into and puts at the forefront, for me as a viewer, is black love. It’s a representation or an opportunity to see people who are dealing with a catastrophic scenario here, for Mike Brown’s family, the people in his community, the people who knew him, people who have been through similar situations — the people who are watching this system basically get away with it. But you keep going back to this idea of love and black love, and people being there for each other and supporting each other. I want to hear your thoughts on centering that love in the film, as opposed to the anger, the righteous anger, and the protest part of it.
Damon Davis: Thank you for seeing through that. To center black people — I appreciate you calling it black love. What we were trying to do was center black normality for a second. And black people just being human beings and living through life. Dealing with all the things that we gotta deal with on an everyday basis. Things that, quite frankly, white people, they just don’t have to deal with. Love has to be a constant thing in places where you don’t have anything, especially in situations like this where you’re basically under siege. I hope that the love came across, and I hope that it puts people in a different space when you think about what we define as terrorism in America, and what we define as a threat to America. It’s a threat to the idea of white supremacy, and I guess that’s what America was built on. When you see it happen on American soil, and when you see the lengths to which people will go to make sure you stay comfortable — comfortable, not safe, not well fed, not educated, just comfortable — just to keep us out of your face until you need us for something. You need us to sing and dance, do a Q and A, build your houses and your roads. Love is a very important food group for black people. We have to have it. My whole thing, when getting into this, and my sister’s,, is just to show the beauty, the majesty that everyday black people have. The strength and the real mental fortitude, day in and day out, especially when everybody telling you, “You makin’ it up. It’s fake news.” It’s not like that anymore. We went through that already. It’s very much still alive, especially in places like where I live: so black love was at the center of that. And we could have showed the differences people have in movements, different ideologies bumping heads. Identity politics that come into it when different black people from different classes, different genders, different sexual orientations come together. But we definitely chose to focus on a love. And that was because we wanted for black people to see themselves reflected back. If somebody else would make the movie about in-fighting, we decided not to make that movie.
George W. Myers: One of the things that’s really striking about the film is how this doesn’t feel like it’s speaking to educate white people.
Damon Davis: It’s not.
George W. Myers: Yeah, I think it’s extraordinarily powerful and obviously not an easy thing. Can you talk about the process of producing a film from this angle? Did you feel pressure to create a narrative that white people could approach more easily, or maybe not feel guilt?
Damon Davis: Hell, yeah. I felt like white people were pressuring me to make a movie for white folks. Look at the audience. You know what I’m saying? This is the thing: any time that white people the star of the party, the center of the room, everything got to do with them and how it’s gonna affect them. If there’s not a magical negro, a Bagger Vance teaching some white person how to be a human being or see other people as people, then black people are not necessary. Every movie you see, the background music is black people singing. It’s soul. It’s rock and roll. It’s hip hop. It’s black people serving white people in every movie. We’re mechanisms to get things across, either as brutality taken out on black men, primarily black women — brutality taken out on black women. But we always a mechanism to get to another thing. So the white dude can be the hero. The white dude can be the hero. That’s very specific too. I wanna say that.
I want to be honest about the time that I live in. I’m very lucky to be able to even do this, coming from where I come from, and not having the credentials. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t do all of that. I learned from doing. I had to do a lot of stuff to get the know-how that I couldn’t get ’cause I didn’t have the money. I didn’t have the resources to do it. And when you walk in the room with a bunch of people that, honestly, tend to be very mediocre when it comes to life in general, and have been given a lot of things, and been given a lot of opportunity to do things, it’s overwhelming. That’s the best way I can put it.
And people shun rappers for the amount of confidence they have. But to get in that room you have to feel like that. So when I come in the room, now-a-days, I know I done lapped most of the people three or four times with the stuff that I’ve had to do. And humility is something I keep for my mom and my daddy. You know what I’m saying’? And I keep for my family members. But sometimes you gotta wear that just so you can get the job done. ’Cause if you don’t, it’s gonna be a mediocre white dude sittin’ next to you that got way more confidence than you do. And they gonna give him the money to go into your neighborhood and take pictures of your family. And to tell a story from the objective lens. Objectivity means white people, if we weren’t clear about that. And I hate that I gotta keep saying that word, and keep over emphasizing this, but this is specific to race, and anybody that tells you something different is lying.
And I’m not old. I’m in my 30’s now. Just hit that. My dad is 75. I came late. He’s a black panther, Vietnam vet. My mom was a sharecropper. They were telling me the same thing my whole life. You think, “Yeah, it’s changing,” ’til the army show up because a kid got shot and people didn’t wanna go in the house. Then they show you who they are. These same people go home and they kiss they kids, and they kiss they wives, and they husbands. It’s just a hard harsh reality that we gotta live through.
That’s why I keep saying I didn’t necessarily make this film to educate white people. But if somebody gets something out of it, that’s not to say you shouldn’t watch it or you shouldn’t be emotionally tied to it — because if you a human being you should be able to see people, no matter what color they are. That’s a novel idea but it’s not always the truth. So, I think the way we had to deliver this message, we had to focus and pinpoint on black folks. And if everybody else get it, good and fine, but if they don’t, whatever, man. Whatever. Because that’s how every Woody Allen movie is. You know what I mean? That’s every romantic comedy. We are not in the equation. And we have to find universality in all of these white images. Today, we gonna flip the tables and you gonna have to see us for a second.
George W. Myers: I find that’s even true in the film. You have Eric Holder up there saying, “We did an investigation. And you’ll never believe what we found. And it’s crazy.” In the film, I feel like that’s this idea of the authority. You’re talking about that objectivity: “Oh, look, I have the camera. And now if I have this camera to put it on a big screen, now will you finally believe us?”
Damon Davis: The funny thing is … we’ll see how the Q and A go. I’m gonna give you a spoiler alert real quick. There’s always a white lady that stand up and wonder why there’s no white people in the movie. Why is there no white savior. Why is there no white lady that went to Africa and came back with a kid that she saved. You shouldn’t need to see no white person tell you that the world is fucked up for you to relate to it. You feel what I’m sayin’? So, that’s the thing that is always needed. We need somebody white to come in and be like “They not lyin’, y’all. The black folks is for real. It’s really goin’ down out here.” And then leave and then everybody be like “Yeah, I see it. I didn’t know what was goin’ on. I didn’t know how it happened.” Every single time I go somewhere …
George W. Myers: That’s why I’m here.
Damon Davis: Yeah, thank you. You the buffer. Okay.
George W. Myers: In the film you present these two incidents of white people giving testimony and both of them are like “I’m afraid for my property. I’m afraid for my life.” And throughout the film, you show someone literally in their backyard, being shot at. The times white people speak, they expose their blindness. They’re willing to say, “Black people standing up is a threat to me.” But they won’t step back one step further and say, “It’s a threat to the system we have that is unjust.” And it’s incredibly powerful.
Damon Davis: Yeah, I don’t think it’s blindness. I think it’s willful ignorance. And the idea that, “I don’t know what’s going on,” allows you to do whatever the fuck you want to do to people. And notice what the white man said when he got scared: “I’m gonna get guns. I’m gonna get fuckin’ guns.” That is as American as pie, as baseball. You know what I’m saying?
George W. Myers: Alright, this is a great audience so I think we’ll have a lot of fun here.
Damon Davis: Let’s go. Let’s do it.
George W. Myers: The question from the audience was, “In that city council meeting, the guy says, ‘Oh I’ve been afraid for 2 months.’ And then the woman gets up and says ‘Oh, I’ve been afraid for 2 decades.’” She’s asking if that’s a particular reference to Ferguson? And, if not, do you want to give any background to that community that might help contextualize parts of the film that might be confusing?
Damon Davis: Okay. I think that’s a “yes” and a “no”. First, yes. Ferguson is one of 99 municipalities in St. Louis county. Those municipalities were created because of white flight. They were created because they didn’t want black people around them, so they move out to those places. They herd us like cattle, like everywhere else in the world. And one common misconception is that Ferguson is “the hood” — it’s a poverty stricken area — when it’s not. It’s a very affluent or middle class suburb that’s half black and half white. Especially when you look at the way the news pitched everybody like thugs, and that’s the hood, and that housing complex becomes projects. It’s not like that. Those are apartments. The grass is cut. There’s a Walmart there. There are businesses there.
But the treatment of black people (which we go into in the film)…Eric Holder said it: they are a collection agency. They write tickets to pay bills. They make 3 million dollars in one year off of tickets. There are 3 warrants to a house. That means me, my dad, and my brother can’t go outside. So how do I get a job? How do I go get food from the grocery store? Because they pull up on you walking to the store. You know what I mean? Straight up slave shit. So that is specific to Ferguson. But it’s also specific to any decade in American history. 20 years ago we could have said, “We’ve been scared for 20 years.” 20 years before that, there could have been a old lady saying, “We’ve been scared for 20 years.” 20 years before that … You know? It’s micro and macro. Whatever way you cut it, she was telling the truth.
George W. Myers: We actually screened a film called “A Prison in 12 Landscapes” as a part of this series. And there’s a vignette about that county. A woman is threatened with jail because she was cited for her trashcan lid not being on. And they go into the collections agency and ask about it. It’s gonna be on PBS. Brett Story did it. It’s a great film.
Damon Davis: There’s actually a scene that we cut of a guy talking to Ron Johnson, who’s the head of the highway patrol, and he just kept it real. He wasn’t out there specifically because Mike Brown died. He said, “I got $3,000 in tickets from my grass not being cut, from a dog being loose, for my trash cans being in the street. That’s why I stand with the people of Ferguson.”
And that’s day to day stuff. So how do you get out of poverty? How do you feed yourself when people is ridin’ around doin’ that to you? And those hotspot policing areas don’t ever look like this area out here. You know what I mean? The hotspot policing don’t happen out here. And if you’re supposed to be protecting people … On an honest level, you’re supposed to be protecting people, and you work for the rich people. Let’s just be honest. That’s what police do. Once you are around them all the time, once you are around them making sure nothing happens where they at… But you don’t see police in affluent neighborhoods. You may see private security and stuff like that, but you don’t see police like that. Those hotspot areas are in poverty stricken, low income, minority spots, or spots where people that you don’t like hang out. If it’s the gay part of town… You know what I mean? That’s where they police at. That’s who they harass. That’s where they make their money. You know?
George W. Myers: This question from the audience was, “Did the police chief and the clerk and everyone resigning — did that make any difference in Ferguson?”
Damon Davis: The mayor didn’t resign. The mayor won again. The mayor’s the fucking mayor still. He won the election again. The police chief did resign. They put another police chief in there. But they also added a special tax on cigarettes. So you buy cigarettes, you give money to the police for guns. They also … Jesus Christ. I’m sorry. I’m trying to think of the term for it: it goes back to the 60’s where if you don’t have an ID then you can’t vote.
George W. Myers: Voter ID Laws?
Damon Davis: Yeah. So that’s back in Ferguson. That’s a direct result to that uprising. That happened after that. So nothing has changed. In fact, they bared down harder on people.
Question from Audience: I’m curious, as this particular crowd is almost all white, seeing your film, I’m wondering if you’ve been able to screen it for audiences of color and if so the differences that you’ve felt.
Damon Davis: Oh, it’s much different. And yes, we have. And right now we working on raising funds for a much more extensive impact campaign so we can take it to places like where I’m from. Like East St. Louis. All black: Patterson, New Jersey; Flint, Michigan. The places where people are affected by this the most. In the places where we have been able to screen it — aside from the film festivals and stuff like that — it’s very different. It’s a lot more laughter. It’s a lot less surprising. I mean, black people just get the jokes. When we sittin’ in the barber shop talking, it’s a lot more laughter about what’s going on there than what I saw here. When Brittany’s reading the police report, they laughin’ at it. And I think it’s laughin’ to keep from cryin’. I think people are just used to it. It’s something we do to deal with things. But that’s just one specific thing that’s different. The universal cry or reactions, when you hear people gasp, people talking through the movie — and that’s what I like. I like that. I talk through movies. I’m listening to the commentary from the people in the movie and it’s not like I’m in a library and shit. You know what I’m saying?
Audience Member: So, if folks want to send you checks or credit donations for the film, how might they do that?
Damon Davis: There it is. Thank you, brother. I appreciate that. What they would need to do is go to whosestreetsfilm.com and send us a direct message, and we would definitely take those donations so we can take this to communities of color across the country and the world.
George W. Myers: In the film, you address how to tell a story, and I wonder how you see the importance of black agency, and telling your own story, but then getting that story heard at all beyond those directly affected? There has been a verdict on another cop in St. Louis who was not indicted for killing a black person. It’s not getting any news coverage. How do you respond to the current situation in St. Louis as a filmmaker? And do you have any relationship to people trying to tell those stories now, or any ideas on how people can get access to that type of information?
Damon Davis: That was like three questions. One: Jason Stockley, on video, declared how, in a high speed chase, he was gonna catch this mother fuck and kill him. On camera. Got out and did it. Waved his right to a jury trial, which put his fate in the hands of one man, a judge. And that judge let him go home. For the last month, every day, hundreds of people have been in the streets. But like you said, nobody knows. I’m gonna say this. I don’t know how else to say it. When they call me — what is it? ‘A black identified extremist?’ You know where it came from.
See, if there’s no smoke, nobody comes. There’s no smoke, nobody comes. A whole lot of people are culpable in that. The media doesn’t care unless there are fireworks. And when the fireworks happen and they get there, they call you a terrorist. When nobody dies, nobody gets hurt. I’m glad my homegirl, Kayla, who is one of my best friends, said that on camera. That violence happens to a human body. That’s what violence is. Buildings can be replaced, especially with what we’re paying with insurance. It’s a billion dollar industry. Build another fuckin’ building. But you can’t get people back. If those are actions are not taken, nobody ever shows up. And when they do show up, they call you a terrorist. But you can stand in the window and spray up hundreds of people and then you’ll be crazy. You can go into a church a murder black people, grandmothers and mothers. You’ll be a lone wolf and you’ll be crazy. We march in the street over being murdered and we are extremists.
I just want to take a moment, and I want everybody to know, that it does not make you a better person by sitting here listening to me. I’m not your priest. So don’t walk out of here and think that you are so much better than the rest of the white folks ’cause you sat and listened to me. If you don’t go out and challenge the people in your life with their views and the things that they do, and the things that they say jokingly… That’s something I had to learn, being a man and sittin’ and listenin’;even if I don’t say it, that doesn’t mean that I’m not culpable in sexism, in homophobia. If you don’t do anything… Everybody knows the problems. They’re like, “I’ll fight for mine because I’m in this little subcategory.” But when it comes over to the other people on the other side, that have got the same boot on their necks, if you don’t go out there and you don’t say anything to anybody, silence is compliance. It’s okay with you. That’s what you’re telling everybody. That’s what you’re telling the people around you.
And the hard reality is that people who identify as white sit in a place of privilege. And just because you’re not the police… The police are just the arm of the government — but they make sure you get to do whatever you want to do. So that’s why people have such a hard time: “They must have done something wrong. They must have.” … When they move people out of neighborhoods and they gentrify them, when they keep them at a distance because they’re big and scary, unless it’s a concert and they’re on stage rapping for you… All of these things that nobody ever thinks about. I just want people to really take a real, long look at their own individual lives and think about what you’re culpable in, and what you can do to change the reality if you want a change.
And if you don’t? It’s time to get real, real real with yourself, and realize what side you’re on. The President is making it very easy to see who is who. He’s making it very easy to see who is who. You know? Like I said, my parents are 75, ya know? They all die. They all die off. Them mother fuckers with them tiki torches are younger than me. They 21, 22, 23. They look like baristas and hipsters. ’Cause that’s what they are. That’s what they are. They ain’t running around with swastikas tattooed on their face. Nah. They are the normal people that hang out with you, and love your music, and all of that. But if anything ever happened a switch would cut on and you would see who people are.
What Donald Trump has done is made it okay to come back out into the light and be evil. And the world is saying that’s a good thing. A lot of people are like, “That’s great.” Not really. I don’t think it’s great at all, because now there are no repercussions for anything. If people weren’t culpable before, they definitely are not culpable now. Nothing would ever happen to them.
So I think I just hit two [of the three] questions.
And yes, the cops were chanting “Whose streets?” in the street after tear gassing, macing people, and locking up a bunch of people. 130 people went to jail the other day. Congressmen, priests, pastors. You know what I’m saying? Mothers, daughters. You know what I mean? Went to jail. No coverage because we payin’ attention to this idiot talking about whatever he feels like talking about. And it’s outrageous how we got here.
I refuse to believe that nobody voted for that man up in here. So why everybody being quiet? You know he right. Some of y’all voted for him. Somebody up in here is down. I refuse to believe. He won across every demographic of white. Old white, young white, man white, woman white, white white, off white. Everything. He won across everything. He had 40% of the vote. Across everything. When he talked about groping women and disrespecting women and 51% of white women voted for him. That’s what I’m sayin’. So, when we talk about how racism is over — nah. Nah. At the end of the day, America is divided by that. Just say it and be done with it, so we can get on to the next thing. So we can work on through it. Yeah, I think I got all of those questions. I got a little bit off too. I just had to get a little bit off.
Comment from Audience: I just want to say thank you for making such a film. I’m a teacher. And I feel stronger about saying the things I really wanna tell the children at school because you have fired me up.
You’re young and able to do these things. I am very grateful for that. I have lived in so many different places among black people, but I know I’m racist because I was born white. I recognize that. I have to work beyond it now. Let’s talk more about the healing. And I mean constructive. That means that you teach children and anyone you speak to not to vote for idiots like we have. It’s our job.
Damon Davis: Thank you for that. There we go. And I hear that. I did my job. That’s why we all sitting here. You know what I’m saying? So now here you go. That’s an alley-oop. You can take it, and you can show that to the kids. You know what I’m saying? But I truly appreciate that. I really appreciate that you said, “I’m racist because I was born white.” And I really want white people to really understand what racism is. Racism and white supremacy are two different things, okay? Racism is, “Yeah, I was born white. That means power plus privilege.” That’s what that means. And even the poorest white dude … I grew up in a place with real rednecks… Racism is much deeper than that. You understand? It doesn’t mean “Oh, I’m not a bad person. I don’t wear sheets and shit. I don’t …” Nah. That’s another level. Right? That’s another level. They are related. But I want everybody to understand it. Yes, all the white people are racist. All of them. So it’s time to redefine. Really look at what the definition of racism is. The person in power should not be the one defining what it is. It should be the person that is under the boot that tells you what it is, ’cause they the ones getting it every day. So I really appreciate that comment. This is, by far, the first time in the history of me doing Q and A’s that I’ve ever heard a white person say that. And I truly appreciate the honesty and the self awareness on that. And that’s the first step.
Audience: A professor taught me that.
Damon Davis: I know he did. God dammit. I know somebody did. You know? Thank him. Thank Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix, and all the black saints. Thank ’em all.
George W. Myers: So, the next question was about how the film presents the struggle in revolutionary terms. The audience member asks, “If this is truly a revolution, who are you positioning as friends and who are you positioning as enemies?”
Damon Davis: Okay. First, some people define things as a revolution. I want to really talk about the definition of revolution. And how do you define a revolution before it’s over? Cuba was a revolution: complete change of power. I don’t even like the term revolution, because a revolution is 360. That means we stop where the fuck we started at. Right? Revolution: that’s a circle. I wouldn’t say revolution just at this juncture. I think we are in a movement time. I think we see a lot of mobility. I see people moving and I see people being active.
As to who is our friend and who is not, that is very hard for me to say. One, because of my own personal paranoia about life and the world. And to the degree that it’s been heightened after what I lived through here, this fake stardom that I just got because of this movie. I don’t really trust much of anybody who didn’t grow up with me, that I didn’t see out there putting in the work. I meet people where they’re at; I think that’s a good way to do it. Not necessarily giving your undying trust and loyalty to someone that you just met, I don’t really believe in that. And I think that some of growing up black is watching the way things go. Growing up black, poor, in certain conditions — like where I grew up was not a nice place to grow up. So, you had to be aware all the time.
So, I guess the best way to define who is our friend is a human being who loves other human beings. And I mean truly loves other human beings. You can feel that energy when you meet people. And that doesn’t mean people who don’t make mistakes along the way. That doesn’t mean that people are not misguided in certain things. That doesn’t mean people don’t think a different way about the tactics. But, as far as me, I use my own intuition. I use compassion and logic. And I put those two things together. And that’s how I tell who is my friend and who isn’t.
George W. Myers: I approach you as a filmmaker, right?
Damon Davis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George W. Myers: So, if this was a documentary about whaling, I wouldn’t bring a filmmaker here and ask you a question like, “Tell me what it’s like to be a person on a boat that hunts whales.” Because you’re a person who is a filmmaker on a boat with people hunting whales. Is that something that you deal with? You want to present this film and let the people in the film speak. But then you as a person of color are forced to answer for people in the film.
Damon Davis: I think the whale made the movie in this mother fuckin’ scenario. So, I don’t think I can be removed from it because I grew up in [that] place, and I’ve been victim of the things that are happening here. I haven’t been shot by police but I have been harassed. I’ve been humiliated by police. I got police in my family. That’s another thing that we don’t ever talk about. Blue always comes down on black. I don’t care who’s wearing the blue. Black is the enemy when blue shows up, which is something that we don’t always acknowledge. And to a degree, yes, I made a film, but I don’t define myself as a filmmaker. I tell stories. I make things. You know what I mean? And I’m a human being first. Because of the skin I was born in, I’m black. And I acknowledge that. And I’m quite proud of it because of the people that came before me.
I don’t think I can be removed from these type of questions, but what I will say is, if it was a movie about whaling, and I made a movie about whaling, nobody would be asking me how to solve the whaling epidemic. But because I’m black I must be a fuckin’ political scientist and I must be Elijah. I must be some kind of prophet that can tell you how to deal with your own personal problems you have in your heart. And that’s the thing that is frustrating, usually, because if you don’t have those answers, then, for some people, it invalidates everything that you just put onto this screen.
I tell you this: some doctors diagnose the problem, others figure out the fuckin’ medicine that you need to take for it. I’m the one that diagnosed it. I’m the one that just gave you the evidence that it exists. That’s what me and my sister, Sabaah, did. I really think, in my heart — and this is not always the most popular opinion — that white people made this problem and it’s up to them to figure it out. White people made it. They don’t build a whole long lineage off of it. And we talk about racist as though it’s a fuckin’ force of nature or something. Like it’s Katrina. Nah, that’s your uncle, and your moms, and your cousin. Everybody. People create it. People facilitate it. And I think that black people are just trying to survive. I’ve got enough trying to survive in it;I have to make up the answers for you? We are here to do work for white people. You know what I mean? That’s usually what it is. We supposed to be doin’ all the damn work. And I think it’s about time that this mess should be cleaned up by the people that made it, and the people that benefit off of it. That’s what I think.
Question from Audience: Could you speak a little to the “Take a Knee” movement and the Confederate monuments coming down?
Damon Davis: See, that’s the thing. What did I just say? I’m black. So, all of the black shit I must have an opinion on. This is what I think. I think it’s great to take a knee. 70% of the fuckin’ NFL’s black. People, fuck takin’ a knee; don’t walk out on the field. Stop makin’ them all that goddamn money. Stop being gladiators for these people. What was the other thing that we were just talking about? The monuments? The monuments to losers. Take ’em down. They lost. They lost. No where else with losing do you get a fuckin’ monument. You don’t get a trophy for losing. Take that shit down. That’s it.
George W. Myers: Damon Davis, co-director of Whose Streets. Thank you so much.
To learn more about the film Whose Streets visit: http://www.whosestreets.com/
To learn more about Co-Director Damon Davis visit: https://heartacheandpaint.com/
To learn more about Co-Director Saabah Folayan visit: http://www.sabaah.is/
To learn more about Bellwether screenings visit: https://amherstcinema.org/series/bellwether