Michael Brown shooting: New video in ‘Stranger Fruit’ complicates case

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COMMENTARY

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of film reviews and cultural observations from 2017’s South by Southwest festival.)

AUSTIN — Stranger Fruit is an imperfect documentary that still managed to exhibit the most explosive footage during the SXSW festival last month.

Director Jason Pollock provides a missing piece of surveillance footage that, he claims, shows Michael Brown wasn’t robbing a convenience store of cigars, which was the allegation that led police to question Brown and, after a struggle, ended in bloodshed.

Moments after Pollock premiered Stranger Fruit, The New York Times picked up on his new revelation in Michael Brown’s story. Pollock’s thesis was largely culled from a police report he read during two years of his own research. A line in that report alluded to a video from the morning before the shooting. That clue led Pollock to the new surveillance video.

A case that lit a city on fire

There is a mystery around the Michael Brown shooting that seems to resonate beyond the number of interviews, autopsies, forensics reports and facts, and what some argue was a “document dump” on jurors at the grand jury hearing.

That mystery is what compelled Pollock, a protégé of Michael Moore, to leave his job starting a small media company in Los Angeles and come back to Missouri (he had previously mentored inner-city youth there). Pollock researched the case for two years.

The case of Michael Brown’s shooting has been covered exhaustively. To refresh your memory, Brown, 18, was reported to have robbed a convenience store on Aug. 9, 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. This was the news on the police dispatch that compelled officer Darren Wilson, 28, to pull up on the side of the road and question Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson.

Brown had recently graduated from Normandy High, a problem school with a four-year graduation rate of 61.5 percent. He was about to head off to college.

On Aug. 15, 2014, in a move questioned by the Justice Department at the time, the Ferguson Police Department released the initial video in the case. It shows Brown take two boxes of cigarillos from the counter of said store and apparently push the owner from the front door — an act of “assault.” The Brown family released a statement calling the police’s decision to release this footage “character assassination.”

A Justice Department investigation would later dismiss 24 witnesses for lacking credibility. The decision to exonerate Wilson was announced at night, after a long delay, and the resulting unrest in Ferguson remains one of the most memorable in the contemporary era of civil rights.

It’s hard to say why. Is it the hug the man gives Lezley McSpadden as the decision is announced, followed by his call to burn everything down? Is it the fire at night — images left over and fresh from the works of social critic and novelist James Baldwin? Is it the look on George Stephanopoulos’ face as he interviews Wilson, who automatically states, “the training kicked in,” and that’s just it?

New footage opens new legal possibilities

Stranger Fruit’s second video shows the midnight clerks of the same store handing Brown the two boxes of cigarillos that were in his hand when police spotted him later on Canfield Drive. Brown meanwhile hands over a small bag of some sort. Pollock believes it to be pot.

“There was some type of exchange, for one thing, for another,” said Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, in the doc. She was also in attendance for both SXSW screenings.

Pollock said when he initially approached the Browns, they said no one had offered them an opportunity to tell their story as they saw it. The new footage Pollock had found added extra appeal for them to speak out.

The documentary’s hitherto unseen footage also provides Brown’s parents a chance to file a new federal lawsuit against officer Darren Wilson, the city of Ferguson and the former Ferguson police chief some two and a-half years after the shooting. A civil trial is scheduled to start next year.

A subjective work

As a documentary, the Stranger Fruit screening was extremely bold (as when Johnson is given a chance to tell his version of the story — at one moment pointing the imagined gun right at the lens).

Still, Pollock eschews objectivism. He thinks Brown was innocent (and it’s his movie, after all). Contrary to the media people he critiques and contrary to Fox News, Pollock is noticeably more than comfortable saying that Brown had pot without losing any conviction in his argument of an essential innocence violated. (It’s a little pot. So what?)

Pollock believes that the power structure in Missouri, compounded with the negligence of endless media men who descended upon Ferguson only to miss the video he found, constructed a narrative that irrevocably tarnished Brown’s character. As a result, the documentary is sourced one-sidedly (not unlike Jeff Feuerzeig’s triumphant Author) and seeks to recognize the underrepresented voices surrounding the case.

Pollock’s SXSW presentation compelled thought

Before and after the film, Pollock, who is white, displayed comfort in hip-hop sneakers, natural braggadocio and an overflowing knowledge of historical context surrounding the micro points his questioners challenged him with. The outrage in his voice was a rarity, a slip in the news cycle that he still cared about this case that much. His presentation became more compelling and convincing the more it started to look like someone fighting for someone else he cared about.

The mystery of the case remains. This documentary was an act of witnessing.