The recent spate of racially charged police incidents, including the killing of unarmed black men from Sacramento to New York City, speaks to the urgency of a number of new projects seeking truth and reconciliation between the past and present. The newly opened National Memorial of Peace and Justice and its accompanying Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, confront the long and dark history of lynching in the United States. Stranger Fruit, Jason Pollock’s documentary about the police shooting of Michael Brown four summers ago, was released nationally on April 3 and will premiere on Starz next month.
The film’s investigation of Brown’s killing invites us to grapple with a difficult legacy, and in so doing, challenges us to pursue a more just future.
Stranger Fruit opens with scenes of Ferguson, Missouri, protests set to Billie Holiday’s haunting 1939 song. It reconsiders how Brown’s lifeless body came to rest on smoldering blacktop for over four hours in the Missouri heat, pointing to glaring contradictions in the official story. And it raises the possibility that local law enforcement obstructed justice by lying to federal investigators after the grand jury non-indictment.
The official story in question goes like this: Darren Wilson suspected Brown of robbing a convenience store before stopping him and Dorian Johnson in the street. An angry and aggressive Brown initiated a struggle over the officer’s gun. To protect himself, Wilson discharged his weapon twice, wounding Brown in his hand. Brown took off running as Wilson gave chase. After a distance of 180 feet, Brown turned back toward Wilson, charged at him “like a demon,” and was then shot six or seven more times as Wilson emptied his clip.
The Department of Justice stated that federal agents canvassed 300 residences; interviewed dozens of witnesses, including local officials; and collected physical evidence, autopsy reports, cell-phone records, and e-mails. “In so doing, we assessed the witnesses’ demeanor, tone, bias, and ability to accurately perceive or recall the events of August 9, 2014.”
Numerous witnesses said Michael Brown did not attack Darren Wilson and attempted to surrender. But federal officials stated that none of these witnesses, most of whom were Brown’s black neighbors, were “credible.” Their statements were deemed inconsistent or “contradicted by the physical and forensic evidence.”
You might assume that federal officials applied the same standards to local law enforcement too. They did not.
The film shows three instances in which police gave official statements to the press or the grand jury that are incompatible with the final version. The highest-ranking officer, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, gave the first press statement, hours after Brown’s death. He described “the entire scene” of the shooting as occurring within “about 35 feet” and involving a “couple” of shots. “It was more than a couple but I don’t think it was ah, ah many more than that,” he said. “We’ve done a very comprehensive canvas.” According to the physical evidence and ballistics, all 12 shell casings were documented and recovered. And the crime scene stretched 180 feet, not 35.
Six days into the investigation, Ferguson Police Chief T. Jackson released the convenience-store video but told the media that Darren Wilson did not know about the robbery. A confused reporter tried to connect the dots, pushing Jackson to clarify. “Let’s stay with this, this is critical. What are you saying chief?” he asked incredulously. “Did he know [Brown] was a suspect in a case or did he not know?” The camera zooms in for Jackson’s response: “He didn’t. It had nothing to do with the stop.”
When the grand jury interviewed the first responding officer on the scene, he told them that Wilson “did not know anything about the stealing call.” The sergeant, who can be seen in the film from cell-phone video, insisted the stop was “only about the sidewalk, nothing to do with cigarillos.”
Police made these statements when memories were still raw and truth within reach. But federal investigators did not use them in their report to challenge or discredit local officials, leaving Wilson’s final version of events intact.
Patrick Green, mayor of the neighboring town of Normandy, calls the Brown case a “cover-up” in his interview with Pollock. “The cover-up is to me that one white officer is more important than all these African Americans put together.”
For nearly three quarters of a century, thousands of black people, including over 100 black women, were lynched in the presence of or with the complicity of law enforcement. Not only could blacks not testify in prosecutions against whites, local officials often refused to indict, lying in the official record that the victim died “at the hands of parties unknown.” Lynching postcards sold as souvenirs told a different story.
Stranger Fruit starts with an affirmation of Michael Brown’s humanity and builds on a history of racial terror. The Ferguson police department’s well-documented occupation of the black community is the crucial context for assessing inconsistent police statements and the physical evidence. As Holiday sings:
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
In 1955, Mamie Till allowed the nation to see the mutilated remains of her lynched teenage son, Emmett Till. No one was convicted. Fifty years later, Keith Beauchamp’s documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, uncovered evidence that Till’s accuser Carolyn Bryant had lied. Although too much time had elapsed for Bryant to face prosecution, that film led to the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act.
It is not too late with Pollock’s film.
The arc of history that connects lynching’s past to policing’s present runs through the bodies of black unarmed men, women, and children—Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice—whose names might one day be added to the weathered steel columns of the new National Memorial.
Michael Brown is already there: A 10-foot sculpture of a bullet-ridden, disfigured body, titled BAM (For Michael) by the artist Sanford Biggers, stands at the exit of the Legacy Museum.
Lezley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, plans to run for Ferguson’s City Council this fall. She insists—as the work of Biggers and Pollock does—that this moment is not just about Americans’ desperate need to reckon with the past. It is also about pursuing justice now and in the future.