AUSTIN, TEXAS—Mike Brown did not deserve to die. That sentence is an objective truth that you already know before, during, and after the buzzy and frustrating documentary Stranger Fruit, which had its world premiere Saturday at South by Southwest. The film is frustrating because of the glaring lack of justice for the Brown family, but also because this movie probably should not be classified as a documentary. For all of its access and authenticity, for as close as it flies to the outer reaches of human experience and pain, the finished product is an activist project, not a journalistic statement. Director Jason Pollock’s “big reveal” of additional security footage has already turned Mike Brown’s name into a national trending topic again. Still, Pollock’s film is more of a new question than a definitive answer or missing piece of the puzzle.
Pollock, whose Facebook page lists him as the Creative Director for Michael Moore, has made a film very much in the style of Moore’s work: captivating and polarizing. Like Moore, Pollock’s finger-wagging narration often gets in the way of his material. Like Moore, Pollock cares little for opposing viewpoints or inclusion of any information that might obscure his pre-stated narrative. Like Moore, Pollock is not a journalist, but he puts himself in front of the camera and interviews key players as an everyman. With a lesser-known, less-covered case, the audience might benefit from this sort of hand-holding. But Pollock doesn’t hold your hand so much as force you to believe an imperfect, speculative new detail with questionable legal impact.
“This is a pill that the world is going to have to swallow,” Pollock said as he introduced the film to Saturday’s audience. He brought out Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, to a standing ovation and a 30-second moment of silence. It was powerful to be in McSpadden’s presence, and she makes for the most visceral moments of the film. She speaks fondly of her late son, who was gunned down on August 9, 2014, eight days after he graduated from Normandy High School. His dead body lay in the street for four and a half hours before being hauled away in the back of an SUV, not an ambulance. The raw video of McSpadden wailing, crying, shrieking on the other side of yellow police scene tape is gut-wrenching. For the bulk of her interviews, the camera pulls in close to her face, the pain and loss still visible in her eyes. She is not at peace with any of it. How could she be? Brown’s memory is everywhere, from his face on a throw blanket slung over the couch to screen-printed tees commemorating his life. The radical vulnerability at play here reaches a truth that cannot be described, only seen and felt. Brown’s family’s pain is its truth.
Here are some other truths: Officer Darren Wilson’s facial injuries are inconsistent with his claim that Brown assaulted him at close range, causing Wilson to fear for his life and ultimately pull his gun. Wilson was allowed to drive himself back to the station and put the murder weapon in the evidence locker himself. An incident report allegedly was not filed on the day of the shooting, and may not have been filed until days after. A police press conference stated that Wilson stopped Brown and Dorian Johnson because they were walking in the middle of the street, but in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Wilson claimed he made the stop after hearing a radio call about a convenience store robbery in which the suspect was believed to be carrying cigarillos, which Brown had in his hand at the time of the stop. Here is where Pollock’s reveal comes in: Those cigarillos were not stolen, per se, they were rightfully Brown’s in exchange for what may or may not have been a small amount of marijuana the night before. Pollock’s findings rest on security video that appear to show Brown engaging in the low-level drug deal shortly after 1 a.m. with what appear to be younger, different employees than the older man he scuffled with the next morning at the same store. That’s where the movie gets messy.
Those defending Brown allege that if Wilson never heard the radio call for suspects in the late-morning robbery, and if he stopped Brown and Johnson for merely walking in the middle of the street, then public surveillance video of the dust-up should be obsolete. Brown’s lawyer and family believe the decision to release this video was nothing more than character assassination. This is a compelling argument. But Pollock’s incorporation of this second video of Brown’s alleged low-level drug deal the night before undermines the previous argument. If the morning-after footage is tangential to the case, why should the night-before footage matter? Pollock’s argument seems to be that Brown was merely returning to take what was rightfully his, and that the police releasing one clip and not the other is essentially suppression of evidence. In an interview with The New York Times, a lawyer for the convenience store disputed the alleged night-before drug deal altogether.