Damon Davis On Art, Sundance And His Ferguson Uprising Documentary

Damon Davis doesn’t flinch. Clad in a black tee and light trench, he takes a seat, eyes focused behind horn-rimmed frames. A self-described introvert “with an extroverted side,” he’s the type of man who has a lot to say, but listens as though the world could stop any second.

From a historic vantage, Davis’ world did just that—not for a second but for four long hours, into months, then years, of feverish witness. When Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9, 2014, St. Louis entered both the national and international spotlight as arguably never before. But the legacy of Ferguson need not be reduced to serial clips of impassive state troopers, wailing mothers, and burning storefronts. Rather, it can be how St. Louis got real with itself for the first time in decades.

Davis was among those who stared the city straight in the face. “There are two St. Louises,” he clarifies on a late Sunday morning. “One that doesn’t have to know about the other, and the other that is forced to in order to survive.”

Through a creative practice he describes as “part therapy, part social commentary,” Davis has long proven the power of art as a means to not only endure, but resist. He has been a painter, a printmaker, a DJ, a writer and—along with artist Basil Kincaid and rapper Eric “Prospect” White—a founding member of St. Louis’s Reclamation Project, a cross-genre initiative to unite the city through a thematic series of exhibitions, performances and recordings.

With “Whose Streets?,” the Sundance-feted documentary about Ferguson which Davis recently co-directed with Sabaah Folayan, he is also the local force behind what might be the most important film to come out of St. Louis since Judy Garland stepped off a trolley car. A corrective to the ‘media colonization’ the city weathered in 2014, “Whose Streets?” chronicles the year of vigil and uprising in the wake of Brown’s death and the grand jury decision that followed. “This is more than a documentary,” reads the Directors’ Statement. “This is a story we personally lived. This is our story to tell.”

And Davis was ready to tell it. “I know my personal voice, and I can pull it out of any medium,” he says. “But to do a film of this scale, operating at this level, is a new skill set I just built. Film is much more labor-intensive and collaborative than anything I’ve done before. For an interdisciplinary artist like me, it has provided a space where I can use all of my talents at once—not only can, but have to.”

damon davis

Davis grew up in East St. Louis, an autodidact from a young age. Whether shaping sculptures from aluminum and mud as a child, or learning to produce music in middle school, his output has consistently spanned disciplines and traditional labels. “I have been drawing all my life, on everything,” he reflects. “I can’t remember when I was not creating, and fascinated with learning the craft of it.”

Together, Davis’ passion and craft have carved a path to significant recognition. With work in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Davis has exhibited on both coasts, often the sole St. Louisan represented. “If anything, “Whose Streets?” is a broader, more public extension of what I, as an artist, have been doing for years,” he explains. “I don’t necessarily see myself as a mascot for the city, as that reduces its complexity. But I do understand what I’m representing, and I’m proud to do it. What is going on worldwide in terms of activism was largely started right here in St. Louis.”

“Whose Streets?” was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and is slated for release in August 2017, three years after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson. When asked whether the film is of a piece with the recent Oscar-nominated docs that engage the black struggle, Davis makes clear how it stands apart. “Those films are great, but in some way they all focus on black suffering. ‘Whose Streets?’ doesn’t do that as much. I see our movie as more in line with the fictional film ‘Moonlight,’ or the television series ‘Atlanta.’ It humanizes and normalizes the black experience, showing how black people are people who live the whole gamut of emotions.”

As far as what he most wants viewers to take away from the film, Davis mulls over the most precise way to put it. “I would say a sense of the truth,” he says, deliberating. “But these days, ‘truth’ as a word doesn’t mean that much. So instead I’ll say the most important thing I want people to take away is a sense of honesty.”

In the crosshairs of confrontation and introspection, Davis’s creative approach belies a life of unapologetic engagement—with not only art, but the world of ideas. “I was never not an artist,” he says. “But I’ve also felt like a scientist with a love for the philosophical. I think a lot about how the universe works—and this thought process becomes the art that I make. You are watching me process my reality.”

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 3, 2017. Purchase Issue 3 and become an ALIVE member.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.

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